Review: Michel Portal

Michel Portal and Scott Colley-Queen Elizabeth Hall, LJF2011
Photo credit: Edu Hawkins

Michel Portal
(Queen Elizabeth Hall, 14th November 2011. Part of the LJF. Review by Chris Parker)

Given the extraordinary range of musical interests informing the career of one of France’s most respected musicians, Michel Portal – he is as at home with the music of Stockhausen and Boulez as he is with free and post-bop jazz, not to mention chamber and film music – it was no surprise to hear his stellar international band not so much straddling or mixing genres as ignoring them altogether to arrive at an entirely original item:
Portal music.

True, they concentrated on material from his latest album, Baïlador, and their overall approach (theme/solos/theme) was the familiar jazz one, but their ability to slip naturally and uncontrivedly from, say, bustling boppish figures to rubato musings or strident skirls was tremendously impressive, and ensured that their seventy-minute set flashed by, packed with unexpected but consistently felicitous musical incident.

Although it was the front-line partnership of reedsman Portal with trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire (who, like Portal, can producesolos in which post-bop or free jazz is stitched seamlessly into the above-mentioned Portal music) that immediately caught the ear, it was pianist/keyboard player Bojan Z who held the band together, both by setting its tone through judicious selection of either acoustic or electric instrument, and by his subtle embellishments of Portal’s intriguingly convoluted themes.

Bassist Scott Colley, his cultured, full-bodied sound complementing the front line’s scurrying urgency perfectly, and drummer Nasheet Waits, with his superb dynamic control, proved a highly sympathetic rhythm section, and the reactions of both the audience (a warm standing ovation after the encore) and Portal himself (gratified smiles at his bandmembers during their individual contributions) were entirely merited.

Bass clarinet, Portal’s main instrument (though he also played soprano and alto saxophones), is perhaps somewhat neglected in contemporary jazz, but while he is on the scene playing rich and absorbing music like this, its unrivalled ability to produce a mesmerising variety of timbres and textures will continue to be celebrated.

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