For the past three decades, an irrefutable signifier of cool has been the prominent placement of an ECM record jacket or CD in your dorm or living room. One of the original indie label successes, ECM's releases feature classy, minimalist cover graphics—often arty skyscapes or shadowy figures in misty settings—austere yet intense Eurojazz stylings and pristine sound quality, evoking an undeniably artsy, Übercool vibe.
This week, the Portland Jazz Festival brings that sanctioned cool to longtime jazz fans and Stumptown scenesters alike. But ECM (which stands for Edition of Contemporary Music) hasn't always been so revered. In the 1970s—while many American jazzers embarked on a short-lived fling with rock 'n' roll—it was their cross-Atlantic counterparts who were sipping schnapps with the sultry chanteuse that is modern European classical music.
At the time, some purists found ECM's lustrous sound too polished and uniform, its music too cerebral, too icy, too—let's say it—white for jazz. But the proof is in the pressings: ECM ultimately expanded jazz's boundaries, won the genre new fans and produced some of the most atmospherically alluring recordings—of any kind—of the last four decades. In revitalizing an American genre with a European flavor, ECM did for jazz what the Beatles did for the American R&B they loved—brought it home, with a twist.
ECM documented that discreetly passionate affair between contemporary classical and jazz. And, along with Eurojazzers, the Munich-based label (founded in 1969 by Manfred Eicher) has featured some of the original American jazz fusioneers: Chick Corea; Keith Jarrett and his mentor, Charles Lloyd; and plenty more.
Acccording to PJF director Bill Royston, Corea is also the main reason the PJF is focusing on ECM this year. "Chick Corea and Gary Burton's 35th anniversary concert was the catalyst to explore ECM," says Royston. "The further our research went, the more I felt reinforced in terms of the influences of Crystal Silence [Corea and Burton's breakthrough 1972 release]."
"That album influenced a whole generation who rejected fusion as no more than jazz/rock," he adds. "The ECM vision in the early '70s was fusing jazz with acoustic music from classical and chamber to international world music sensibilities."
The fourth annual festival boasts plenty of innovative non-ECM jazz legends, as well—great Texas trumpeter Roy Hargrove, piano master Jacky Terrasson and New Orleans tenorman Donald Harrison—not to mention dozens of local jazzers, several screenings of Crystal Silence: The Story of ECM Records, chats with many of the label's visiting performers and staffers, panel discussions, workshops and, of course, loads of jam sessions. Check out our handy list of quick picks, right, for festival highlights.
Chick Corea and Gary Burton, 7:30 pm Friday, Feb. 16, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
Pianist Corea and vibemaster Burton will play music from Crystal Silence and more recent joint ventures tonight. Their collaborations tend to bring out both masters' lyrical side, making this a perfect show for even casual jazz fans.
Geri Allen Trio, 1 pm Saturday, Feb. 17, at the Hilton Hotel's Pavilion Ballroom
The redoubtable Geri Allen leads her own terrific band as well as playing in Charles Lloyd's quartet (see Sunday's listing). Her trio features drummer Jimmy Cobb, the sole survivor of Miles Davis' landmark Kind of Blue band.
Trygve Seim, 4:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 17, at at the First Congregational Church
This young Norwegian saxman's intricate arrangements merge two streams of cool: his compatriate and labelmate Jan Garbarek's astringent wintry landscapes, and Gil Evans' plush orchestral settings for Miles Davis. One of the brightest of ECM's latest generation artists, Seim shows the label both maintaining and refreshing its creative classical-jazz confluence. This show is his 11-member ensemble's American debut and should appeal to fans of post-classical music as well as jazz.
Don Byron, 7:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 17, at the Newmark Theatre
This eclectic clarinetist never repeats himself, covering everything from cartoon music to klezmer to his latest infatuation: the great Motown soul of the late Junior Walker.
Dave Douglas, 9:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 17, at the Hilton Pavilion
As versatile a composer as anyone in jazz today, Douglas has worked with artists as eclectic as John Zorn, Tom Waits, Bill Frisell and Josh Redman; used string quartets, electronics, accordion and violin; and covered Stravinsky and Webern as well as Ellington. He plays with wildly different ensembles from show to show (he's led a dozen different configurations), but his melodic, probing trumpet works beautifully in every context.
Charles Lloyd Quartet, Tomasz Stanko Quartet, 2 pm Sunday, Feb. 18, at the Marriott Ballroom
Though each of these ensembles would be a top recommendation alone, together they're unmissable. After pioneering jazz fusion in the '60s, Lloyd is now two decades deep into a surprisingly successful second act. His deeply affecting explorations tend to alternate between mystically moody driftings and upbeat post-bop flurries.
The venerable Stanko, perhaps Europe's greatest living jazz master, is at last receiving accolades from American fans that approach the near ecstacy he prompts among critics and Eurojazz-heads. The Polish trumpeter/composer's spare, haunting jazz noir holds audience utterly spellbound, and his trio of 20-something accomplices adds youthful intensity.
Nancy King, 8 pm Friday, Feb. 16, at Abou Karim
Many of this year's low-cost shows spotlight top players from the Northwest, like this gratis performance by world-class talent Nancy King, whose vocal stylings have been likened to Billie Holiday. King also leads a vocal jazz workshop later in the week with singer Mary Kadderly (Tuesday, Feb. 20, at Abou Karim, 7 pm).
Midnight Jam Sessions, Friday, Feb. 16, and Saturday, Feb. 17, at Alexander's
These late-night jam sessions feature local masters improvising alongside the festival's visiting jazz royalty—the perfect excuse for a nightcap.
Devin Phillips, 6 pm Sunday, Feb. 18, at the Hilton Pavilion
The PJF has explanded this year to include a second weekend of shows featuring local performers like this recent New Orleans transplant, whose stylish sax bubbles with the Creole rhythms of his Crescent City origins. This prodigy could well be Portland's next jazz giant.
Dan Balmer, 8 pm Monday, Feb. 19, at Jimmy Mak's
Along with Mel Brown and Glen Moore (playing Feb. 20 and Feb. 25, respectively), contemporary guitarist Balmer—who also leads fusion band Go By Train—is one of several Portland mainstays who's always worth a listen.
nextgenjazzjams, 11 pm Friday and 10:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 23-24, at the Gerding Theater at the Armory
Refuting the notion that jazz is your grandparents' music, Portland boasts a surprisingly vibrant presence in the under-20 generation, as the nextgenjazz collective—featuring Dan Duval, Chris Mosley, John Nastos, Drew Shoals and Dusty York—well proves.