JVC Jazz Art Porter Benefit – July 2001

For Art’s Kids Sake
Art Porter Benefit Sizzles
by Phyllis Lodge

JVC Jazz Art Porter Benefit When asked to cover the benefit in support of Art’s two young sons my response was: “Sure! I’d be glad to.” Well, I had no idea that many of my deeply entrenched musical attitudes were about to be pulverized, and my perceptions of smooth jazz headed straight for the edge! That Thursday afternoon when I enthusiastically agreed, I knew precious little about Art Porter’s music. By Saturday night Art’s music had gained my deepest respect and admiration. I had come in contact with the spirit of a man who had contributed immensely to the sophistication of contemporary music. My introduction to the life and music of saxophonist Art Porter came five years after he left the earth. I missed out on any possibility of experiencing his immense creativity and enthusiasm in performance…and what a pity for me. As I ventured out to the Park West where the folks were gathering like birds awaiting the imminent morn, I was soon to discover an artist who was actually a much greater part of my musical experiences than I realized.

The music was transforming, and the atmosphere, embracing. The evening hurtled forward with the speed of light. All the participating musicians were fluid, receptive, and commanding… the show came off like spontaneous combustion. Less than a couple of hours earlier mother nature had hit Chicago’s south side with a torrential rainstorm, but not a drop had touched the Park West. A good sign for the evening to come.

After the opening comments and an introduction of Art’s mother, the show began with Jeff Lorber (who produced two of Art’s albums) opening with Straight to the Point. Saxophonist Steve Cole joined him in this number as they broke the darkness of the theater into a million volts of summer beach light and energy. The listeners immediately fuse into one spirit, rocking back and forth together in a gentle, yet insistent pulsing motion. The room is bathed in splendorous sound, evoking images of summer… an air-conditioned club, an outdoor concert, or maybe just an evening gazing at the lake. The electric bass buzzes underneath the charge of the keyboards and horns, leaving not a single detail of the experience unspoken. And the musicians bring the number to a brilliant close punctuated by a musical crescendo of applause and cheers.

Jeff Lorber steps to the mic reflecting on Art’s harmonic richness and approach to his music, recalling how the majority of Art’s recorded pieces were, as a rule, “first takes”. Inside Myself came next with its intense chanting line on top, and powerful locomotive guitar and bass lines. The piece really travels with the listener, personifying the archetype of ‘Lorber funk’, treating the audience to classic screaming saxophone cries reminiscent of the energy often portrayed by Stanley Turrentine or even King Curtis. Lorber’s rousing solo pulls a wave of approval from the audience.

Now Paul Jackson, Jr. assumes center stage. After explaining that the piece was based on scripture he introduces On Eagle’s Wings. Moving with a heartbeat tempo, On Eagles Wings evoked memories of peacefully smooth octaves so characteristic of the great Wes Montgomery. Jackson’s soaring solo unfolded with power and nobility in a series of mesmerizing ascents in chords and phrasing. The number exhilarated the audience. Paul becomes airborne as he rolls into Rock Steady, rocking without shame. You know how you pull up to a stoplight and your windows are rolled up, right? And you’re rocking fiercely to an irresistible beat when you glance out window and see the folks in the next car rocking right along with you? Well, Rock Steady was that kind of tune. Everyone in the place was pumpin’ those neck muscles without mercy to the same tempo, heads jerking like the ever-popular bobble-head dolls.

Next up was Chicago-based saxman Steve Cole, who came on blowing Got It Going On. At this point, even without really knowing the titles, I am recognizing much of the music. I start out grooving with it because the number is familiar, then I get really involved because Cole’s saxophone is wailing! Cole was not content to let the place rest until he had the audience reeling and squirming in their seats. He then ventures up to the mike…”I’ve got to say something…” he quips in a modest tone “…this Art Porter music is hard!” Well, the audience just breaks up behind this. Steve continues: “And growing up in Chicago, I remember saying… ‘Wow, I wanna play like that.” He then follows up with an original that courses gently into the air drifting, floating, stirring up deep-seated emotions and feelings. More than once during Cole’s improv, an unidentified listener enhanced the mood by intoning … ‘Well all right!” – overcome by the elevated energy of Cole’s solo.

Peter White is then lured back on stage, spraying highly emotional licks from his guitar, drawing near hysterical screams from the crowd. Energized by the ocean of unidentified echoing voices the two hurl musical jewels at one another like tennis champions relentlessly vollying in a match. Cole and White play, and play, each pressing the other a step further; pressing the level a notch higher as they feed off of one another’s musical ideas. Singing, wailing as the rhythm section steadily fuels the duel with sizzling ammo of their own. The ballad that has created such tension in the room now transmutes to the point of a cleansing thunderstorm. As it trinkles to a ringing conclusion, the audience by now is actually part of the music, sending unending waves of positive vibrations to the performers on stage.

Mark Ruffin, the shows executive producer takes his place on stage to thank the sponsors, then he introduces two musicians from Art Porter’s original band. Alan Burroughs explains that the next song “is just a conversation, and we’d like you to just eavesdrop on it”. He continues “Before every performance Art always made us take a moment and pray. I remember we didn’t get to pray in Thailand, and that was the last time we performed together. ” (The next day Art died in that tragic boating accident.) Then he launches into a beautiful vocal tribute, accompanying himself on guitar and supported by the bass. The tribute song was a duet to entitled Call You A Beacon and it had a strong Sam Cooke feel to it. The room was quiet, like a meditation session…
  “…Call you a beacon; A beacon of light;
  Call you a flame ’cause you burn so bright”

The bassist contributes a gentle, beaming solo that hummed and spoke softly and articulated so clearly, the words that eluded him earlier when he tried to speak to the audience. It was most certainly a conversation between the two musicians on stage and the one we could no longer see. The audience had the privilege to share this peaceful, haunting and absorbing moment and was quietly moved.

Ruffin then came back out to introduce Brenda Russell, who assumed her place on stage and greeted her audience with a demeanor that reached out and hugged each and everyone in the audience. “This song is from my new CD about women who fall in love.” in jest, she adds “What an unusual subject.” Ms. Russell then lets an airy laugh escape to open She’s In Love, a soothing, caressing piece that wafts out into the audience like an exquisite perfume. The room is filled with the fragrance of the number, weaving a dreamy mood, enrapturing the musicians on stage as well as the audience. She then introduces She Walks This Earth, a song written for Sting that went on to win a Grammy. Her performance of this mesmerizing composition is enhanced by her rich, deep and encompassing vocal style. The audience has been highly appreciative of the music and musicians to this point, and because they knew Brenda so well they are unable to stifle their collective emotion, responding with shouts and cheers and great approval. As Brenda comes full circle on the number, she performs some mind-bending, dream-like sequences of images with her voice before closing her segment of the show.

After Brenda departs our emcee comes back to bring out soprano saxophonist Marion Meadows. The on stage musicians cook up a slow burning, juju-inspired rhythm that is intensified by Meadows who presents a dramatic picture in his near-fluorescent white outfit, broken only by the thick, rubber-band-segmented ponytail reaching halfway down his back. He crescendos into wave after wave of charm-type expressions that scream and lilt in an upper register, spurring the audience into a growing, frenzied response. The musicians then bring the charm-music to a soft, bluesy close, leaving the listeners in yet another near-dream state. Meadows peppers the audience with musical ‘dust’ from overheard as he flies away through his saxophone. As Meadows later said… “This is in the spirit of the Art Porter that I remember, because once he got you going, once he got you locked in there was no stopping…” Meadows performance was unstoppable, carried to new heights by the nearly dizzying percussion layers laid down by Kevin Patrick.

In between numbers Peter White joked to Mark Ruffin “I can’t believe you this show together in just 2 days!” Then Peter jams as only Peter can. His guitar virtuoso alternately enthralling and moving the crowd. Then, he called Steve Cole back on stage for yet another rollicking number. The name Grover Washington came up underneath the opening strains of the introduction, and the number definitely proceeded like a Grover Washington expression. It swelled, it dwindled, it lingered. Completely caught up in the energy, a zealous Peter White danced sprightly to the rear stage to play some serious chords to percussionist Kevin Patrick, who promptly replied with some rhythmic magic that had the place hopping.

The room barely had a chance to recover when Peter White quieted the room by playing a familiar intro, it fell on many recognizing ears as he called all the night’s performers on stage for the finale. They then launched in to a moving, power-smooth rendition of the Margin Gaye classic What’s Goin’ On! The music rocked and flowed into every corner of the room, every corner of the audience. Brenda Russell stretching her powerful, far-reaching vocals over the simmering gumbo of sound. The stage a solar system of activity, Peter White in a Chuck Berry knee bend, doing this hot-foot dance as a result of the heated chords he’s sprinkled all over the stage floor, Steve Cole and Marion Meadows wailing away, Lorber stroking the ivories and Paul rocking the rhythm.

At the bridge, the musicians shift gears into a deep simmer, the kind that comes from a stew that has cooked down so perfectly, you can just turn off the fire and let it simply smolder in its own mellow heat. Brenda spices the air with some belting riffs and nearly superhuman musical calls. The audience does another solo of its own as the musicians all line up on stage before them, the audience sending its energy up to rush over and break through. The final number didn’t so much close the show as it graciously released us from our collective spell, after which the audience responded with its own thunderstorm of music using their hands, feet, whistles and whatever other sounds they could muster.

Art and Barbi Porter know that the love and music that went out that night is enough to carry their children through multiple lifetimes. For heaven’s sake… For Art’s Children Sake.

This month’s shooting gallery has more than 100 photos from
the Art Porter benefit, the after-show at the Metropole
and the Portland Smooth Jazz Show.