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Originally published Wednesday, February 20, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Avant-garde pays off at Portland Jazz Festival

A half century ago, saxophonist Ornette Coleman turned the jazz world upside down with his album "The Shape of Jazz to Come. " Reprising that title...

Seattle Times jazz critic

Concert review

The Portland Jazz Festival: Feb. 15-24, various venues in Portland, Ore., free-$80; 503-228-5299 or www.pdxjazz.com.

Coming up

The Portland Jazz Festival continues through Sunday. At 7:30 Wednesday, the Portland Jazz Orchestra performs at the Crystal Ballroom. Thursday, Portland vocalist Nancy King does a "jazz conversation" at 1 p.m. On Friday at 7:30 p.m., King gives a concert with Kurt Elling, followed at 9:30 p.m. by saxophonist Joshua Redman. Saturday brings the brilliant new clarinetist/composer Anat Cohen at 3 p.m., banjo man Béla Fleck (with the Oregon Symphony) at 7:30 p.m. and Swiss pianist Nik Bartsch with his group Ronin at 9:30 p.m. Sunday, Fleck and the symphony return at 3 p.m., and the festival closes with the great funk alto sax man and former James Brown sideman Maceo Parker, at 7:30 p.m.

A half century ago, saxophonist Ornette Coleman turned the jazz world upside down with his album "The Shape of Jazz to Come."

Reprising that title as its theme, the fifth Portland Jazz Festival presented both Coleman and another avant-garde giant from that era, pianist Cecil Taylor, as headliners.

The risk paid off.

Friday, opening night, nearly 2,000 people swarmed into Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall for a dazzling Coleman show, giving the saxophonist a standing ovation before and after he played. Sunday, in the Oregon Ballroom of the Portland Marriott Waterfront Hotel, Taylor drew 750 fans to his sublime recital.

"We sold more tickets for Ornette than we did for Chick Corea and Gary Burton last year," said the obviously pleased festival artistic director, Bill Royston.

Coleman, 77, wearing an electric blue suit and porkpie hat, performed with three bass players, each of whom played a different role in his gorgeously integrated ensemble.

Electric bassist Charnett Moffett anchored the time, laying down deep, sinewy lines and soloing with a wah-wah pedal. Upright acoustic bassist Tony Falanga provided thick textures with urgently bowed tremolos. And electric piccolo bassist Al McDowell offered guitarlike, ornamental obbligatos.

Coleman's son Denardo played drums with a roiling pulse, as his father slashed through the ensemble's web of simultaneous lines with a familiar cry.

Ornette occasionally added short bursts of color on trumpet or violin. The audience may have been surprised to hear the band improvising on the prelude to Bach's Cello Suite No. 1.

Was it the passage of all these years that somehow made Taylor's solo recital feel so approachable, his style so self-evident? Taylor is a percussive, atonal free improviser who palms and punches clusters of notes, machine-gunning but also caressing the keyboard, hand over hand.

The spritelike, 78-year-old pianist walked on stage shoeless, dressed all in white, from socks to a shirt with spider-webbish lines, a few braids flopping over his forehead from a thinning head of gray hair. He tendered clear, sometimes autumnal themes, developing them as if he were having an earnest conversation with himself. No matter how abstract it became, Taylor's music always breathed with a pulse special to his music.

Taylor also recited a poem, a line of which served as a good description of his process: "a dynamism of interconnected membranes."

There were a few walkouts, but the crowd gave him a standing ovation, which he answered with a curtain call, but no encore.

Portland saxophonist Rob Scheps and bassist Glen Moore (from the group Oregon) opened the show with some delicious blends. But the other big highlight of the weekend surely was California pianist Myra Melford's band, Be Bread, featuring trumpeter Cuong Vu, who recently moved back to Seattle to teach at the University of Washington. Be Bread conjured layers of improvisation that glistened with devotional zeal, as Melford improvised on piano and harmonium, a pump organ that usually accompanies Indian vocalists.

The Bad Plus — Ethan Iverson, piano; Reid Anderson, bass; Dave King, drums — sometimes trades in rock-hall clichés. But their packed Saturday afternoon show in the vintage Crystal Ballroom was genuinely engaging, a hybrid of interactive improvisation, bashing rock beats and the razzle-dazzle romanticism of 19th-century piano music.

Not all the shows were avant-garde. The stately and masterful Classical Jazz Quartet — Kenny Barron, piano; Stefon Harris, vibes; Ron Carter, bass; and Lewis Nash, drums — sold out the Newmark Theatre Sunday, and pianist Bill Charlap's elegant, swinging trio plumbed the depths of standards, often at startling speeds, at the Hilton Portland Hotel.

A dance party at the Crystal by the salsa revival band the Spanish Harlem Orchestra was irresistibly tight and infectious.

Nor were all the shows successful. The SF Jazz Collective felt scattered as it honored saxophonist/composer Wayne Shorter and played a host of complex new originals — not surprising, since this was the band's opening gig of the year.

Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen and Vancouver singer-songwriter-pianist Jillian Lebeck were both balefully dull.

The Portland festival invites artists to introduce its shows, a nice touch, in keeping with its community-building spirit. Panel discussions, artist "conversations," dozens of free shows, outdoor music and student performances added to this feeling.

With so much talk today about jazz dying out, moving to Europe, becoming stale or unfashionable, Portland's resurrection of the avant-garde was a smart move, galvanizing a large, often young audience. To judge from random shout-outs at concerts, a significant number came from Seattle. The festival further brought Seattle into the fold with a two-night showcase by the city's Origin Records.

One of the festival's goals is to draw winter tourists to downtown Portland. In its first week, artistic director Royston said, it had already filled 2,500 hotel rooms.

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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