Siskiyou Music Project Presents Pearl Django at Paschal Winery: “Jazz Isn’t Dead!”
– by Lee Greene
Midway through the lively, upbeat concert, by the jazz group, Pearl Django, hosted by Siskiyou Music Project at Paschal Winery in Talent, OR on Wednesday, October 8, the woman seated beside me turned to me and announced with a big smile, “Jazz isn’t dead!” Hardly! The point she was really trying to make is that jazz groups like Pearl Django have been able to survive and thrive, with tour dates and concert performances as a result of the initiative, effort and hard work of jazz advocates like Ed Dunsavage, who runs Siskiyou Music Project, and who, more or less single-handedly, organized this concert and brought Pearl Django to Southern Oregon to perform.
I’ve written about Dunsavage before, most recently explaining how the world traveling Four Handed Jazz Piano Duo came to be performing in Southern Oregon at an earlier Siskiyou Music Project concert this season. “Ed Dunsavage, the Artistic Director of Siskiyou Music Project is well informed, well connected, knows who the leading artists are, and where they are, and seems to never miss a chance to snare them to come to Medford when an opportunity presents itself.” [Four Hands Jazz Piano Duo Concert – Ain’t Love Grand?, Performing Arts Reviews, http://bit.ly/1QuU2Q2] I should have been more specific and said “the leading jazz artists“. Mr. Dunsavage has put together an impressive schedule of seven jazz concerts hosted this Fall by Siskiyou Music Project. Dunsavage not only knows all the jazz artists, but also is well connected to Southern Oregon’s jazz audience. Performers at Siskiyou Music Project concerts always play to full houses of enthusiastic and appreciative jazz fans. So it’s not surprising that jazz artists are willing to, indeed truly like to, come perform to Siskiyou Music Project audiences in Southern Oregon, when Ed Dunsavage invites them.
This was clearly true of Pearl Django at that “Jazz Isn’t Dead” concert at Paschal Winery. The audience was effusive in their enthusiastic reception and response to Pearl Django‘s performance. And the group seemed to respond to the audience with elevated energy, emotion and enthusiasm during their performance. It was symbiotic – the audience feeding off the band’s efforts and the band to the audience’s vibe.
Pearl Django is currently based in Seattle. The group was originally formed as a jazz trio in 1994 in Tacoma, WA, with the “stated focus . . . to incorporate the music of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli with American swing music.” [Wikipedia, Pearl Django, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pearl_Django] The group’s membership has changed; the original trio are no longer with the group, which is now a quintet. [Id.] Though still strongly influenced by the music of Django Reinhardt, much of their current repertoire now consists of their own original compositions. Pearl Django have released 12 albums, the most recent being the 2015 release, Time Flies. All but one of the tracks on Time Flies are their own compositions, and that one is the classic bossa nova piece, Manhã de Carnaval (also known in the U.S. as A Day in the Life of a Fool), by Brazilian composer Luiz Bonfá, that was used as the theme music for the 1959 film, Black Orpheus. The current quintet have performed throughout the United States and internationally, including appearances at a number of prestigious festivals. So getting them to Southern Oregon would seem to be quite the coup (just another feather in the plume-filled cap of Mr. Dunsavage), and it was certainly a treat for the audience at Paschal Winery.
So then, what about the music performed by Pearl Django at Paschal Winery? Well, I’ve already described it as lively and upbeat, haven’t I? But that’s just the tip of a very deep iceberg. Dare I say, if one is a true jazz fan, it was awfully close to dying and going to jazz heaven. Pearl Django play jazz extraordinarily well. Their performance of familiar jazz standards is superb, the group is together, very tight, which I mean in the best way. This is jazz, so there’s some improvisation, it’s not all exactly written on the page, but they are impressively in sync with one another. And their solos, which each member offered at one point or another throughout the evening were exquisite. So much for the standards. The real treat is that they performed a substantial number of their own original pieces, and those alone were worth the price of admission – beautiful, melodic, rhythmic, above all – jazzy, truly great original jazz. You can’t hear those anywhere else from anyone else.
They began the concert with a jazzy version of the familiar Charlie Chaplin’s song, Smile, from his film, Modern Times, which served to demonstrate right from the outset the virtuosity of each of the member musicians and tightness of the group. Most of the rest of the pieces in the first half of the concert were original pieces, all very fine exemplars of good jazz, all wonderfully played, all well received, mostly from the group’s two most recent albums, 2015’s Time Flies and 2012’s Pearl Django eleven. And the thing is, it’s not just one or two members composing the songs, like the Beatle‘s duo of Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Each and every member of Pearl Django have written exemplary jazz numbers incorporated into the group’s repertoire. During the first half of the concert, they performed Prozac Musette by accordion player, David Lange and guitarist Ryan Hoffman, and Endless Fields of Green by guitarist Troy Chapman, from the 2012 album. They played Something Borrowed by bass player Rick Leppanen, Grisology by accordion player, David Lang, Djangolatry by guitarist Ryan Hoffman, and Django Bop – Bistrot d’Eustache by violinist Michael Gray, all from the 2015 album, as well as the one bossa nova piece covered on that album, Luiz Bonfá’s Manhã de Carnaval. I can continue to prattle on all day about how their original pieces are beautiful jazz compositions, superbly performed, but that’s just me talking and you may believe me or not. So here are two sample excerpts – you can listen and decide for yourself – am I right? Is it wonderful jazz? Was the audience at Paschal Winery nearly serenaded to jazz heaven, or was it just a buzz from the wine?
One min. excerpt of Endless Fields of Green by Pearl Django guitarist Troy Chapman:
One min. excerpt of Grisology by Pearl Django accordion player, David Lang:
Having thrilled the Paschal Winery audience with all of THAT, the group took a short intermission. When they returned to the stage after the intermission, what followed was a different repertoire, and eventually a change, i.e., an addition, to the makeup of the group performing. Instead of playing mostly their original jazz compositions, they played a variety of jazz standards, like two Cole Porter tunes, Begin the Beguine and Night and Day.
As for the personnel addition, after the quintet opened the second half with a couple of numbers, like Begin the Beguine, they were joined on the stage by an additional jazz guitar player, the very familiar Ed Dunsavage. You see, Ed is not just a huge jazz fan and a dedicated jazz promoter and impresario, he’s also a performer and a rather accomplished one at that. He’s been performing around the Pacific Northwest for 22 years, shared the stage with many great artists, including vocalists Bernadette Peters, Greta Matassa, Beth Baker and Leslie Kendall, and guitarists Mimi Fox & John Stowel. His Ed Dunsavage Trio has been voted Favorite Jazz Group several times by local readers polls. So it’s not like Pearl Django let an amateur sit in. And of course, it’s jazz, which does include a lot of improvisation, leaving room for performers to, well, improvise. The result was more good jazz. To be sure, the second half of the concert was a little different than the first half which had offered so many Pearl Django original works. Though it was more standards than original pieces and a non-member was sitting in, the quality of the music remained top notch – it was just more, and different, great jazz. Yea, I know – I let you judge the first half for yourself, by letting you view excerpt samples. Why just take my word for it now, about the second half? Fair enough, here’s an excerpt sample from the second half of the concert, with Ed Dunsavage sitting in during the performance of the 1945 Joseph Kosma standard, Autumn Leaves.
Last min. excerpt of Autumn Leaves:
Well, don’t you agree that’s great jazz? I hope you concur that my judgment wasn’t so impaired by Paschal Winery‘s fine Pinot Noir (and it was really good wine, by the way) by that point in the evening, that I lost the ability to discern good jazz from “eh” jazz. Fittingly, almost as though coming full circle and arriving back at their beginnings, Pearl Django concluded the evening with a performance of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli’s Gypsy jazz tune, Minor Swing, proving that they can still knock that stuff of the group’s roots out of the ball park. Hard to believe that anyone else can do it better than what the Paschal Winery audience heard that evening. Jazz Isn’t Dead! Indeed!
The next concert on Siskiyou Music Project’s Fall calendar is Mimi Fox in a “Flying Solo – Acoustic” concert in which she’ll be performing the music of the Beatles, rendered with Mimi’s signature lightening fast playing and emotional depth, on Friday, November 6, at Paschal Winery in Talent. Following that, Siskiyou Music Project returns to The Artistic Piano Gallery, 1390 Biddle Rd., #107, Medford, OR 97504 on Wednesday, Nov. 11, for a concert by the New West Guitar Group, with vocalist Halie Loren. For tickets, phone Siskiyou Music Project at 541-488-3869 or purchase online at http://bit.ly/1NLOJOr.