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Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble

The most strikingly punk show I've seen this year did not go down in one of the many colorfully named, slightly foul-smelling residences that collectively constitute the Portland house show circuit, but rather in the cavernous front showroom of the Hollywood Music Center, a piano retail emporium on NE 42nd and Sandy. In spite of its ample size, the room felt as excitingly full as a packed basement, the premises being simultaneously enjoyed by dozens of baby grands, scores of uprights, a smattering of keyboards, 75 or so audience members, and 10 or so of their toddlers.

Oh yeah, and the 14 members of the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, ingeniously positioned in what must have been the only possible configuration that could satisfy both Dave Sprando (Portland's fire chief) and Alexey Pajitnov (the inventor of Tetris). The building had clearly not been designed with this ensemble's debut concert in mind, but the very unorthodoxy of it, the sense that a collective of young musicians had simply found and made use of a space in their community that they could get donated, and that could accommodate their numbers and volume, cast the January night in a wonderfully DIY light, one that shines on everything that the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble touches.

As much as many of us like to think of our town's rightly beloved rock, folk, and noise house shows as the definitive models of punk resourcefulness, they do belong to an established tradition, and cater to the dominant musical tastes of our region. On the other hand, the infrastructure for independent jazz in Portland is far less developed, in terms of both audiences and venues. After all, the path from picking a name, to practicing in your basement, to performing in someone else's is well mapped for a fresh-faced local singer/songwriter. But the road for young jazz composers who want to write for big ensembles more or less comes to a sudden end with the conclusion of high school or college. And this is why we must tip our trucker hats and Crass beanies to the men and women of the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble. There was no system for making the kind of music they wanted to make, so they built one—a group explicitly conceived to perform original large-ensemble works by local jazz composers. To date, fully half of the group's pieces have been written by its own members.

Andrew Oliver—the well-regarded 24-year-old pianist and composer who founded the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble last spring with saxophonist Gus Slayton shortly before graduating from PSU—summarized the group's ethos: "There are many talented jazz composers in Portland, and we aim to give them a platform for large-group composition and arrangement, which is lacking in the city's jazz scene.... We feel that if someone takes the time to write a piece, we ought to take the time to play it." How punk is that?

The Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble takes the all-ages Hollywood Music Center stage once again at 8 pm on Friday, May 9. Suggested donation: $10.

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