• The Kora Band and Devin Phillips at the Portland Jazz Festival

    February 27, 2011. Posted by Alex Rodriguez.

    Add new comment | Filed under: concerts
    Photo by Steve Korn
    Photo by Steve Korn

    This week, WBGO web producer and Portland, Oregon native Alex W. Rodriguez traveled to his hometown to attend the Portland Jazz Festival. How has jazz in his hometown fared, eight years after he left for the East Coast? Watch this space to find out, as Alex shares his experiences throughout the main festival weekend.

    Last night, I caught a pair of shows featuring some local Portland talent: a double-bill at the Mission Theater with the Kora Band and the Devin Phillips Quintet. Both featured Portland native Andrew Oliver (pictured, right), an old friend from my high school days. He also happens to be one of the many supremely talented jazz musicians who call Portland home today.

    In the Kora Band, Oliver was joined by Seattle-based kora player Kane Mathis (pictured with kora.) The two have adapted African music for a jazz context, and adapted jazz for the kora as well. The result is an exuberant blend that appeals to both jazz and beyond-jazz sensibilities. I may be biased, but Oliver's playing really stands out, bringing his own bebop background into the modal kora soundscape to great effect. To hear the band in action, check out their latest CD, Cascades.

    Saxophonist Devin Phillips

    After a short break, Andrew put on a brown blazer (changing for the second set, he explained) and took the stage with a very different ensemble, led by saxophonist Devin Phillips (right). (Drummer Mark DiFlorio also played in both groups.) Phillips and Oliver met during their undergraduate years in New Orleans. When Hurricane Katrina rudely interrupted their studies, Oliver convinced Phillips, a New Orleans native, to return with him to Portland. Their collaborations were recognized by the U.S. State Department in 2007, when they traveled on a five-country tour of West Africa together. You can hear the group's music on their 2006 CD, Wade in the Water.

    The set combined New Orleans standards with Joe Henderson compositions; Phillips alternated between soprano and tenor saxophones throughout. Phillips's soprano sound is the closest thing I have ever heard to Sidney Bechet in a live performance -- the huge sound, technical control and rhythmic ingenuity were all there. On tenor, Phillips also impressed -- this is a cat who could definitely hold his own with New York's heavy hitters.

    Oliver also wowed the audience in this setting with his Count-Basie-style bluesy piano chops. By the end of the night, the group had the crowd on their feet demanding an encore, despite the fact that many of them had already enjoyed nearly three hours of music. The groups proved that you don't have to make it in New York to play great jazz -- it's just New York's loss and Portland's gain that they have stayed here as a well-kept musical secret.

    Note: These comment boards are available to the general public. Statements expressed in the comment boards do not necessarily reflect WBGO's views. The inclusion of any links does not necessarily imply a recommendation or endorsement of the views expressed within them. For more information, please read our Terms of Service.