January 13, 2017

2016 Year in Review

2016 has come to an end and I’ve decided to return to my tradition of writing a “year in review” post, covering some of the musical highlights of the year.

The year’s first significant musical event was a recording session for the Chuck Israels Jazz Orchestra, which we did at the sadly now-closed Kung Fu Bakery, owned by Tim Ellis, who passed away this year. The recording session was complicated by the fact that there was a significant snow storm the night before the session and then an ice storm while we were inside tracking. At the end of the day, I couldn’t manage to find a way back to my house and ended up staying at my parents’ house, which I could walk to from the studio (although not a short walk…). By the end of my trek, my saxophone case was covered in ice. But, we got a nice record out of it, featuring the music of Horace Silver.

Just a week or two later, I ventured further into the snowy North for a gig with Diane Schuur in Wenatchee, Washington. It was a great gig, and it is always such a pleasure to have work with such an esteemed artist.

Back in Oregon, February brought the first gig of the year for me with the Oregon Symphony. This performance was titled “Return to the Cotton Club,” featuring the great trumpet player Byron Stripling. In my book, it doesn’t get much better than playing with the symphony, and this gig was no exception.

In March, I had the opportunity to play a fantastic venue and concert series in Bend, Oregon, called Jazz at the Oxford. This time, I was playing there with Darrell Grant’s On the Territory project. Darrell has put together some beautiful compositions and a great ensemble to play them, including Tyson Stubelek on drums, Thomas Barber on trumpet and flugelhorn, Hamilton Cheifetz on cello, Eric Gruber on bass, Marylin Keller on vocals, and Mike Horsfall on vibes. I love the story that Darrell has put together in this project and I look forward to every chance we get to perform the music.

The Spring was mostly filled with my regular weekly gigs. Although I had these gigs every single week and in some cases, have for years, I always look forward to them. On Tuesdays in 2016, I continued my long-running tenure with the Mel Brown Septet at Jimmy Mak’s. On Wednesdays, I played at the same club with the Christopher Brown Quartet. And, on Fridays, Chris’s band played at Solae’s. These gigs are high-level performances every single week and I feel very lucky to have so many performing opportunities with these groups to sharpen my own skills as a player and to build cohesiveness as a band with the different ensembles. More on those groups and Jimmy Mak’s later…

Briefly, a non-musical event: in the summer, I took a scuba certification course and became a diver. First, I mention this to have an opportunity to thank Heidi, who convinced me to take on such an adventure. Second, I mention it because it provides the foundation for a great vacation I’ll mention later in the timeline.

At the end of the summer, I returned as a faculty member for the annual Mel Brown Summer Jazz Workshop at Western Oregon University. I’ve been at the workshop in some capacity, whether it’s as a student, counselor, or faculty member, for 16 years. I love getting the opportunity to work with the students, especially in the morning saxophone masterclass, which I teach alongside Robert Crowell. And, I always enjoy getting to live a “just-music” life for a week, where we (both students and faculty) can buckle-down and focus on our craft.

In stark contrast, in October, I took a week off from music completely, and took a trip down to the Channel Islands in California, where I stayed on a live-aboard scuba boat for 5 days. Heidi and I did 16 dives on the trip, saw amazing things, and learned so much. It was an unbelievable adventure and a great chance to get away from the hustle-and-bustle of working life and just enjoy a vacation. It was capped off by the incredible surprise trip to Disneyland (which I had never been to) for three days at the end.

Back in the musical world, shortly after getting back from California, I played the first concert of a new jazz series in Bend, this time at the Riverhouse Hotel. Marshall Glickman put the series together, and like everything he does, it was spectacular. The Mel Brown Septet played two packed shows for very appreciative audiences in a great setting. This is certainly a series I hope to return to as often as possible.

In November, I worked at two different colleges (besides Portland State University, where I am on adjunct faculty), doing clinics and performances with the students. First was Washington State University, where Brian Ward was kind enough to bring me out as part of their jazz festival. Next was University of Oregon, thanks to their director Steve Owen. Doing clinics at colleges (especially with great programs and directors like these) is something I’d like to continue to do more of in the coming years.

The end of the year brought two more trips to California, although for musical purposes this time; not scuba. First was a set of Diane Schuur gigs in the Bay Area. Second was a couple of shows with Tony Glausi, a trumpet player from Oregon who hired the Christopher Brown Quartet as the foundation for his band. These were fantastic shows, thanks both to Tony’s great playing and Chris’s band’s built-in chemistry.

There is no denying that 2016 brought many great musical and personal opportunities and adventures into my life. However, it did end in a bittersweet way. Sometime in the Summer or Fall, it was announced that Jimmy Mak’s would be moving. Sadly, this didn’t turn out to be the case. Although plans were in place to move the club, Jimmy’s health, which he had been struggling with for years, took a turn for the worse, and the decision was made to close the venue instead of move it. The last show at Jimmy Mak’s was on December 31, 2016, and Jimmy passed away just the next day.
I grew up learning to play at Jimmy Mak’s. In the early 2000’s, the OLCC had very strict rules about minors in clubs, but I would still go down to the club and listen through the back door to the musicians play, even though I couldn’t get in. Later on, I started bringing my horn down to the club and would get to sit in with Mel Brown’s band. Often, this would end in mild humiliation, but I would go home, do my musical homework, and come back and try it again the next week. This club (and all the musicians who played there) provided me the opportunity to grow into the player I am today.

As a professional, for years I’ve had weekly gigs there, starting with the Mel Brown Septet on Tuesdays, and then later with the Christopher Brown Quartet on Wednesdays as well. Having a weekly gig is just about the best thing that can happen to a band. You can build repertoire, musical trust, and an audience, all at the same time. Those bands will continue now that the club is closed, but we owe a huge debt to Jimmy and his club for giving us a home for so many years. The musical landscape in Portland won’t be the same without it. In 2017, I wish the best of luck to JD and Lisa, who are working hard to keep the legacy alive and open a new venue.

Finally, on a happier note, I did have a long-term project in 2016 that I haven’t mentioned so far in this review of the year. It’s a musical project I’m very proud of, but I haven’t figured out exactly what to do with it yet… Hopefully 2017 will be the year I bring it to the public!

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