Portland Jazz Festival Escape – 2009 Review

Our 5th Annual trip to the Portland Jazz Festival – the KPLU Portland Jazz Festival Escape – was a big success. KPLU’s Promotions Director Brenda Goldstein and myself made the trip on the Amtrak Cascades with more than 70 KPLU listeners and had a wonderful time. Before I go into the details – if you haven’t taken the Escape with us before, do it!

The train to Portland featured a kindly Russian immigrant who kept us laughing with his intercom reminders about everything from Amtrak etiquette (don’t jump off the train when it’s moving) to important legal requirements (you can drink wine, you can bring wine, but you can’t drink the wine you bring – much funnier with a Russian accent).

We had a terrific time talking with listeners at our pre-dinner reception atop the Hilton in Portland – what a view! I’m always happy to see familiar faces, about half of our travelers seemed to be return visitors, and thrilled to see such a wide variety of KPLU’s listenership in attendance. It’s not just about Seattle or Tacoma or the Major Donors when we “Take the Abe Train.” Many of the listeners were from Canada or Bellingham or Olympia and even one fan from Colorado – and ranging in age from 20’s to 70’s. Most aren’t what we might term “jazz geeks”, they’re just along for a good time, some great jazz, great company and tax-free shopping in beautiful Portland.

The first show was, I think, the highlight of the first weekend. Dianne Reeves sang with her trio and the Oregon Symphony. What I feared would be schmaltzy was swinging and super cool. Dianne is one of the top 2 or 3 singers in jazz today and she’s on top of her game (catch her at the upcoming Bellevue Jazz Festival in May!). She even SANG some band introductions and scatted her way elegantly off stage, without microphone, after her encore. Her love of Sarah Vaughan was in full effect and kept all of us in a romantic Valentine’s Day mood.

A couple listeners chose to get tickets to see guitarist John Scofield’s show later that night and their reviews were expectedly positive. He’s a groovy guy and easily likeable, playing in a trio with Matt Penman on bass and Bill Stewart drumming. They were joined on a few songs by saxophonist Joe Lovano, who played several times over the weekend. A handful of listeners chose the free show at the Art Bar featuring legendary pianist Dave Frishberg in a trio that didn’t feature his iconic vocals, to more positive reviews.

Sunday had us gathered back at the lovely Arlene Schnitzer Auditorium for a pair of shows. We saw the amazingly talented clarinet and sax player Don Byron with his Ivey Divey Trio – piano & drums – and while some songs were a bit on the avant garde side of jazz, his humor and pure chops had us all impressed.

After a short intermission, headlining pianist McCoy Tyner brought a quartet to the stage, including the sax great Joe Lovano plus bass & drums. There were some technical difficulties – the piano seemed too quiet and Lovano’s sax mic didn’t even seem to be working for the first 3 or 4 songs – but because of our great seats we could at least hear what was happening on stage. Unfortunately, Tyner’s drummer couldn’t hold a candle to the other drummers we’d seen. He seemed to think volume made up for lack of talent – too loud, man! I’d have hated to be his parents while he was learning drums as a kid. Eventually, the sound improved and we were treated to some outstanding playing, including Tyner’s piano quoting from a pair of Coltrane classics in the encore song.

Listeners had a wide range of options if they wanted to catch more jazz Sunday night. Many from our crown caught Portland drummer Ron Steen’s jam at Clyde’s Steak House, where a number of local and touring musicians stopped in to play – review: great jazz by some “new” faces in a great atmosphere. Others went to see guitarist Lionel Loueke’s show in the Hilton Ballroom. The overwhelming response from our gang was that the opening singer, Joe Lovano’s wife Judy Silvano, was hard to listen to – some of the audience walked out! – but that Loueke’s set was beautiful, if not strictly jazz. Finally, a few from our crew joined the youth crowd at the Greyboy All-Stars show that night at the amazing Crystal Ballroom. The dance floor is built on tires, making for a perfect spot to hear this modern soul-jazz group.

The weather was great for Portland in February, just a touch of rain Sunday morning with partly sunny skies and around 50 degrees the rest of our stay. The Hilton in Portland was a great hotel, the train was terrific, and the listeners priceless. I had so many conversations with people so obviously enamoured with what we do at KPLU, it gives me renewed energy to keep bringing great radio to all of our listeners around the Northwest and the world. It’s a wonderful opportunity to connect face to face with so many KPLU listeners and hear about their compliments and concerns, building a closer relationship with people who consider our station a vital part of their lives.

For the final weekend of the festival (www.pdxjazz.com) singer Cassandra Wilson’s show was canceled, but stellar musicians like pianist/singer Patricia Barber, pianist Aaron Parks, saxophonist Lou Donaldson, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, guitarist Pat Martino and singer Kurt Elling – doing a Coltrane/Hartman tribute with Ernie Watts! – close out this year’s festivities in fine style.

The Portland Jazz Festival almost didn’t happen this year, Alaska Airlines stepped in with critical sponsorship support at the last minute, so I’m hopeful they keep it going so we can be there again next year!

Your purser & baggage handler,

Abe Beeson (KPLU Evening Jazz/Jazz 24 host)


Dianne Reeves' latest album When You Know
Listeners from B.C. Jane Whiteley & Hugh Jones on the Jazz Train
Listeners from B.C. Jane Whiteley & Hugh Jones on the Jazz Train
(L to R) Jeff & Gretchen Coulter, Kevin Nielsen & Cathy McDonald talking jazz in Portland
(L to R) Jeff and Gretchen Coulter, Kevin Nielsen and Cathy McDonald - talking jazz in Portland

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