The annual Soul’d Out Music Festival started last week and ended Monday with a packed house for Reggae heavyweight, Don Carlos, and Malian electric guitarist, Vieux Farka Toure, at Wonder Ballroom – a pretty smart move for the much-celebrated stoner holiday of April 20th. We brought you a review of the Billie Holiday Tribute on Saturday, as well as Charles Bradley and Robert Glasper Experiment. We had intended to cover Mos Def with Bad Brains on Friday, but the event was sadly cancelled. It was the main event, depending on who you ask, so it felt like a big blow to the whole. Anyway, we relocated to Alberta Abbey in Northeast Portland that night for a packed audience for NPP All-Stars presented by PDX Jazz. Jen Scholten was with me for photos, and she will be bringing you a photo journal of Kiesza soon.
Alberta Abbey is developing nicely and PDX Jazz will serve a strong role in that. It’s a fairly new church redevelopment project on Alberta Street just off of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. that includes a range of artist studios and office suites, a concert theater and ballroom for rent. Previously staged in a downtown office while using McMenamin’s Mission Theater for year-round “Jazzlandia” events, on Saturday they christened their new combined office and concert venue in Alberta Abbey. The pairing is perfect and should be a lucrative model for them, bringing steady revenue to the venue, which took a few years finding a niche for itself.
Darrel Grant, a virtuosic pianist and Portland State University’s Associate Professor of Jazz Studies, opened the night with Devin Phillips on tenor saxophone. It is always fun to watch Darrel on piano. He’s got a reliable performance technique of animation, especially the jumping bit. He would even do it in the classroom when I was a student there (I studied at PSU under Darrel for a year). He just gets into it and expresses it by leaping with excitement — it’s not a gratuitous as Keith Jarret’s humping thing.
But there are more subdued techniques as well, like when he softly walks the harmonies. He might settle down from a raucous improvisation and walk different harmonies the way one would walk a bass line, for a chorus or two. If I remember, he kept to eighth notes, so shifting the harmony at twice the tempo. I appreciate a player that knows technically how to sound both pretty and dissonant but employs it with purpose in surprising ways, demonstrating a connection to the creative moment. He still has a lot of time to leave his academic legacy, his lexicon embedded in a whole generation of Portland players.
New Orleans’ native Devin Phillips is fairly young but much celebrated. He’s got the licks, the chops, melody and harmony, but I like a saxophonist to squeeze some newly discovered notes into it. It’s his voice though, I think he can be picked out from a sonic lineup. I’d like to hear him again in a larger ensemble, perhaps something even more soulful. He kept it from sounding too much like an obligatory sax over “piano jazz” – even though that is literally what was happening. But the rapport between those two kept it interesting, kept us on our toes and forgetting that we didn’t have a complete rhythm section.
The NPP All-Stars actually were the main event. This band consisted of Marvin “Smitty” Smith on drums, Bobby Watson on alto saxophone, Ray Drummond on bass, and Keith Brown on piano filling in for Donald Brown, his father. They dub themselves the National Pastimes Productions All-Stars Quartet, a name that got its start 25 years ago without the pianist who, ironically, couldn’t make it. Keith must have been a young boy, however, when he first met those guys. Life is interesting; there he is playing with them and I wonder if he looks up to them in the same way he must have so long ago.
Most of my attention went to the bass and drums, however. Marvin is quite lively and brings that old school Gene Krupa bombast to the kit, but definitely in a bebop way, not a swing way. I think Krupa does fine with bebop late in his career and would have ripped it had he been young with Gillespie. Beside the fact here. I enjoyed the work of Ray Drummond on bass as it kept in the pocket along with all the wild drumming. I want to say that it was his use of octaves and narrow harmonic range at once, while the piano comped through harmonies standardly, and as the saxophonist honored the melody in his improvisations. I found it interesting to listen to Drummond to hear what he might find there in the tune.
If my description doesn’t make sense, it’s okay. I was a little bit thrown off that night and found myself questioning the reason for Yasiin Beys’s cancellation. I was really looking forward to it. He has struggled in recent years, has canceled appearances before. The Guardian reported in 2014 that he had back child support payments, something that U.S. Immigration has used to prevent dissidents and Muslims from traveling. He’s a famous rapper, actor, and very nearly a comedian. It is hard to believe he cannot afford a monthly payment of $10,000 owed to his ex. But these things may or may not have anything to do with this cancellation in Portland. Nobody has reported an explanation for it.
Alas, the only other performance I attended for review was Vieux Farka Toure. The importation of African music to America has been going on for sometime, and not in that loose connection way from jazz music, or in that field recording way of Nonesuch Records. In fact, it is more of an import-export thing happening. Western styles are now well-fused to the scene there, largely from the electric revolution that perhaps Fela Kuti popularized in Nigeria. But that is actually a totally different style. Malian electric players vary from area to area, but the country has its own sound, much like Nigerian funk is a national identity.
Malian grooves are more bluesy, and Jimi Hendrix influenced. Western Africa splits off from that middle-eastern identity, which can sometimes be indiscernible from one Mediterranean nation to the next. But enough about all that. Vieux performed in that psychedelic slow jam funk-rock style with large build-ups and breakdowns over looping sections. His rhythm section holds it down — it’s a power trio — and he plays around the guitar cascading notes up and down the scale, which has a different flavor than blues, so it never sounds like a blues jam.
His audience likes to dance, and my attention was fixed on this young couple in front of me. I was happy to see kids that I didn’t really think were hip to this music dancing, in love and with enthusiasm. The young man’s feet planted to the floor, his hips swiveling tirelessly, arms wailing clumsily with one hand on the hip of his girlfriend and the other clasped to hers, she loved him in despite of his inability to dance. I kept thinking, Move your feet son! But it didn’t matter because she was equally inexperienced and they were just happy.
Don Carlos performed next and the audience was packing in to capacity, so it looks like Soul’d Out started and ended strong, and almost everything I attended was a hit. It isn’t without faults. Organizationally, I think the brand needs to get behind things and promote more aggressively, expand the team, and put a few faces to it publicly to make it more grassroots. The festival already co-promotes younger upcoming artists next to major headliners, and helps local charitable causes all under one umbrella. But for the greatest good, it could go another step. It also scaled back from two weekends to one; two years ago Prince was the headliner. I hope it is finding balance, because the selection of artists brought to Portland every year through Soul’d Out cannot be found elsewhere in Oregon, not all in one week.
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