Monday, August 1, 2011

Weekend Wrap: The jazz edition with Devin Phillips, Dave Friesen, Ken Ollis

Devin Phillips

Listen to KMHD for a bit and it becomes apparent that Portland has a thriving jazz scene with lots of clubs, musicians and fans. I make a point of tuning into Lynn Darroch’s Bright Moments show on Friday afternoons, specifically to catch up with what the locals are doing, though several of the DJs make a point of touching home base during their programs.

For some psychic reason, this weekend I decided to catch some live jazz, and I had a ton of choices. I ended up going to hear Devin Phillips’ “Impressions of John Coltrane” show at the Mission Theater, Dave Friesen at the Camellia Lounge and a boundary-pushing trio led by Ken Ollis at the Blue Monk, but I could have gone several completely different routes through the weekend.

Thursday night, Devin Phillips

When Phillips arrived in Portland several years ago, displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, I liked his energy, his spirit and his ability to fit into various sorts of music ensembles, from soul to straight-ahead jazz. Almost from the start, he was something of a star here — a young, talented, good-looking sax player.

Time has changed him for the better, and he now seems to be making that difficult transition from “sax player” to jazz artist. After the show at the Mission Theater, I exchanged emails with Darroch, who had served as emcee, and he said that to his ear, Phillips had developed a “magnificent sound” while he’s been here, and then explained how this is the holy grail for jazz players. (I once asked Pharoah Sanders when he knew he’d discovered his sound; Pharoah said, “I haven’t found it yet.”)

In Phillips case that sound is warm and buttery, and “finding” it, I think, has changed his approach. Instead of the rapid sound assault he unleashed before, now he’s more apt to let those round tones take center stage. And that has simplified his playing, made it more thoughtful, not that he isn’t still capable of a mad cascade of scales.

Applying himself and his quartet to Coltrane songs was a challenge. It’s possible for a musician today to have “Impressions” of Coltrane, but it’s impossible to get much closer, to get inside the volcano, one of the metaphors of choice when it comes to Coltrane. If you can’t reproduce his subterranean creative processes, you really can’t reproduce the rough, elemental quality of Coltrane and his various bands.

Phillips’ take on the famous Coltrane songs — “My Favorite Things,” “Naima,” “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” “Impressions” and “A Love Supreme” medley, among others — was slightly introverted, studied, earnest, tuneful and balanced. He took his time establishing the melodies before rushing into his improvisations, and he frequently deferred to his bandmates, especially pianist Ramsey Embick and drummer Alan Jones. Embick’s light, quicksilver solos set the tone: The band wasn’t reproducing Coltrane; it was sketching its own music around him. Jones supplied the explosions and Eric Gruber supplied the grounding on bass.

Dave Friesen, Camellia Lounge

Friday night, I dropped in to the Camellia Lounge behind The TeaZone in the Pearl District to hear the extraordinary bassist Dave Friesen, who has had a long and illustrious career playing alongside the likes of Marian McPartland, Joe Henderson, Chick Corea, Dexter Gordon and Dizzy Gillespie, among others. Personally, I’m partial to his work with guitarist John Stowell.

The Camellia is a small club, and at the start it was barely one-third full, though as time went on it started to fill rapidly as keen-eared young musicians began to fill the seats. Which is just to say that the first set, at least, was pretty informal and experimental. Kansas City guitarist Jerry Hahn sat in with Friesen and sax player Rob Davis (speaking of sound), and between songs Friesen would tip him off on how they intended to approach “My Funny Valentine” or “Black Orpheus” or one of Friesen’s new compositions. And then they were off.

They traded off a lot, especially as Hahn began to warm to the music at hand. That meant we heard a lot of Davis’ forays, complicated figures that still seemed to explain themselves as they moved along and entirely enjoyable. And at the center Friesen’s own solos were intense, full of clever moments, propulsive, muscular, deeply creative.

You could just wander in off the street, pay six bucks and hear this? Amazing.

Ken Ollis, The Blue Monk

On Sunday nights, The Blue Monk on Belmont Street does jazz. (I’ve never been there for the belly-dancing, but now that I know it’s there...) And this particular Sunday Ken Ollis, Dan Gaynor and John Savage were there -- a long way from Coltrane and “Black Orpheus” and into the farther reaches of new composition, where at least some of the exploration concerns what exactly you need to hold a musical expression together.  In short, I don’t think I heard a chorus during the set I caught.

That’s not bad necessarily. Sometimes I happen to need something that doesn’t fit into my templates, something fundamentally unpredictable, and Ollis/Gaynor/Savage brought that to the Blue Monk’s basement. Sometimes the action was on Gaynor’s keyboard where first his right hand might construct a figure and then turn it over to the left hand. Savage’s flute runs were happily improbably, often running dissonantly against the grain of the piano. And Ollis, who composed most, if not all, the songs I heard (there was not much commentary from the bandstand and what little there was, was inaudible to those of us in the back), has a protean drumming approach that draws on jazz and rock, though here was in service to something I’d almost label alt-classical, not that labeling is all that important.

This turned out to be exactly what I needed — new ears, a brain re-set, oh, and an Arnold Palmer. It started to get warm down there.

Next Up:

PDX Jazz @ The Mission: Tomasz Stanko (Sept. 22)

Camellia Lounge: 9 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 2, Jazz Jam with Noah Bernstein & Blake Lyman with Akila Fields, Jim Prescott, Sam Foulger, 9 pm

Blue Monk: 8-11 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 7, Ocular Concern (Andrew Oliver, piano/keyboards; Dan Duval, guitar; Steve Pancerev, drums); first set, all ages; sliding scale, $3-$7

NOTE:

This post appeared originally on the Arts&Life page of Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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