The first weekend of the Portland Jazz Festival surpassed the usual high expectations, particularly in the piano department.
The festival, which runs through Sunday, March 1, took the 100th anniversary of Frank Sinatra's birth as a mini-theme, offering concerts dedicated to "ol' blue eyes" by vocalist Kurt Elling and pianist Bill Charlap.
Elling, who sometimes thrusts his ego in front of a song, seemed content Friday at the Newmark Theatre to present Sinatra's timeless material with affection and respect. Accompanied by the Art Abrams Swing Machine big band, the Chicago singer applied his muscular baritone, perfect intonation and impeccable sense of swing to such classics as "Where or When," "You Make Me Feel So Young," "I've Got You Under My Skin" and "All the Way."
During an onstage interview earlier that afternoon, pianist Vijay Iyer acknowledged the influence of another Chicago artist, Ahmad Jamal. The Iyer trio's electrifying late night set Friday in the Winningstad Theatre spoke to that lineage, with its deft use of space, thematic development, conversational structure and an oceanic ebb and flow of ideas. Iyer and his trio — Stephan Crump (bass) and Marcus Gilmore (drums) — played a restless investigation of Thelonious Monk's quirky "Work" and ended with a satiny encore turn on Michael Jackson's "Human Nature."
Saturday, at Classic Pianos, pianist Taylor Eigsti offered a dazzlingly fleet, thickly chorded solo recital highlighted by a warm rendition of Dave Brubeck's exquisite ballad, "Strange Meadlowlark." This was followed by the only minor disappointment of the weekend: an overlong double bill by the Christian McBride Trio and alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson. Though there is no denying bassist McBride's eye-popping virtuosity and tree-trunk-sized sound — and his sidemen, Christian Sands (piano) and Ulysses Owens (drums) matched him in vigor and soul — their music was like a blizzard of notes in search of a story, save for a spirited bass-drums "discussion" on "Caravan" and a gorgeous version of the ballad "I Have Dreamed."
A cameo by McBride's fellow Philadelphian Freda Payne, a soul singer who had her own festival slot, didn't help, as her voice was tattered at the fringes.
One might say the same about 88-year-old Donaldson's sour, aquatic alto saxophone sound, except that his damn-the-torpedoes humor and squawking wheeze of a speaking voice were as disarmingly funny as his "Alligator Boogaloo" and "Whiskey Drinking Woman" were bawdy and soulful.
By vivid contrast, Charlap, aided by the two Washingtons — bassist Peter and drummer Kenny — closed the weekend with a tender recital of Sinatra gems, digging down to the romance, sadness, poignancy, regret and triumph that attracted Sinatra to his material. That included Rodgers and Hart's "It Never Entered My Mind" and "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust," Cole Porter's "In the Still of the Night" and, to bring it all to home for a bedtime farewell, "One For My Baby (and One More For the Road)" and "In the Wee Small Hours." You could feel the departing crowd exhaling with after-hours satisfaction.