In the past, the folks behind the Biamp PDX Jazz Festival have booked their annual event around a theme. In 2009, it was a celebration of Blue Note Records’ 70th birthday, and in 2011, the festival highlighted collaborations between African-American and Jewish artists, calling that year’s run of shows “Bridges and Boundaries.”
While the 2018 installment of the Biamp PDX Jazz Festival wasn’t organized as such, there was a rough thread that ran through many of the performances that took place Feb. 15-25: celebrating the life and career of Geri Allen. The pianist and composer was set to return to Portland this year to perform at the festival, but those plans were halted by her untimely death in June. Still, Allen’s presence was felt throughout the programming, not only during an evening dedicated to her work, but also through appearances by fellow pianists like Ethan Iverson, Abdullah Ibrahim, George Colligan, Marcus Roberts and Tigran Hamasyan.
The performer who provided the most direct and powerful evocation of Allen’s spirit as a performer and composer was Darrell Grant at a Feb. 22 performance. A pianist and instructor at Portland State University, Grant cites Allen as a major influence on his own work, delighting, as he said from the stage of the Newmark Theatre, in “the way that her music danced.” In that spirit, he played with a lightness and a subtle swing, whether that was via a Gershwin-by-way-of-Cecil Taylor original or a positively breathtaking rendition of James Taylor’s “Fire And Rain,” which was almost Rachmaninoff-like in its romantic warmth.
Following Grant was the rhythm section Allen was supposed to perform with at the festival: bassist Esperanza Spalding and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. Rather than attempt to fill the sizeable hold left behind by the pianist’s death with another keyboard player, the two performers instead brought along saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. That combination aimed for a celebratory mood with its lengthy performance, wending in the influences of hip-hop and funk into a bop-heavy mix (one bassline called to mind Lou Johnson’s “The Beat,” a track notably sampled by De La Soul). It would have been difficult for the trio to be in any other mindset than a joyous one, considering the adulation that Spalding, a former Portlander, received from the sold-out crowd and the infectious energy she brought to the set. Even as she played, the bassist spent the entire night in motion, dancing and head-bopping, waving her right hand around as if conducting the other players.
Later that same evening at the nearby Winningstad Theatre, Allen’s name came up frequently during sets by former Bad Plus member Ethan Iverson and a trio led by another Portland artist, pianist George Colligan. The former was on hand for one of his first solo shows since leaving the venerated trio he co-founded in 2000, but there was little in his set that offered any clues as to what musical direction he will head in, apart from his mention of sending in the sheets for his first ever piano concerto. His short set was, instead, comprised of renditions of ‘60s pop classics (“The Look of Love,” “The Shadow of Your Smile”), some standards, as well as an Allen composition, “For John Malachi.” Iverson approached the entire set with a minimalist’s mindset, letting the vibrato and overtones of the piano swell through the room, and adding little notes of dissonance to these often-familiar melodies.
Colligan was much busier during his performance, soloing with fervor and beaming joy as he worked up and down the keyboard. What kept him grounded was the work of bassist Buster Williams and drummer Lenny White, both players who worked with Allen in the past. There was clear chemistry between the three men, and a shared history. Colligan has been playing with Williams since the start of his career, and this combo has worked together off and on for at least a decade; they needed no lead sheets or any direction to set the tempo. Usually, it was just a quick head nod and they’d jump into the cool swing of “L’s Bop” or the Williams’ classic “Christina.” In contrast to Colligan’s expressiveness, White and Williams kept poker faces throughout, setting about the business of playing with an almost stern reserve. That might have kept their playing from really skyrocketing, but considering their ages (Williams is 75; White is 68), their desire to simply get down to business was entirely understandable.
The pianist in the festival lineup that seemed to capture Allen’s conceptual daring and desire to incorporate a myriad of influences into their playing was Tigran Hamasyan. The young Armenian artist filled up the humble confines of the Mission Theater with a set that spanned styles and continents in the course of a single song. Joined by drummer Yogev Gabay and bassist Sam Minaie, Hamasyan was able to quietly slip from a Sondheim-like melody into something more brash and Wagnerian in one song, and then spend the next splitting the difference between Keith Jarrett-like spaciousness and busy prog rock. It was as thrilling to listen to as it was to watch him bounce on the piano bench, letting looks of agony and flirtatiousness play over his face.
The other heartening element this year was to see the festival make further efforts to embrace more challenging sounds. That’s been a tough sell for Portland jazz fans in the past, but the bookers succeeded by planning performances that struck a balance between truly out sounds and those that placed experimental elements within more palatable structures.
The festival’s opening performance by the Scott Amendola Trio set that tone early through the drummer’s use of squelching electronics and guitarist Jeff Parker’s drones amid their collective funk grooves and glassy-eyed jams. Those aspects were driven even harder by the Miles Electric Band, an ensemble that recreates some of Miles Davis’s heaviest, most wicked work from albums like Bitches Brew and Dark Magus. Their set was explosive, drawing out the more psychedelic elements of those ‘70s classics. Shows like the wild affair that Most Other People Do The Killing brought to the event bode well for the future of the Biamp PDX Jazz Fest. Audience reaction to some of those more difficult moments will hopefully inspire even more audacious bookings in the future.