Portland Street Sessions engage musical community

Photo courtesy of Facebook

If your USC party schedule doesn’t include a living room environment with live jazz and focused listening, it may be time for you to expand your horizons.

The Portland Street Sessions offer a different way to engage with music than typical party concerts around campus, creating a setting designed for guests to have increased interaction with the artists.

Founder Zev Shearn-Nance, who graduated from the USC Thornton School of Music in May, said he got the idea for the concert series as soon as he moved into an off-campus house in 2016.

“It just occured to me that this space could be utilized really well for this concert concept,” Shearn-Nance said. “So I ran the idea by everybody and people seemed down, and over time more and more people started getting excited about it.”

That momentum has brought some amazing jazz musicians through Portland Street, such as Louis Cole, who has worked with Thundercat and opened for the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the past. Grammy-winning artist Jacob Collier’s performance was especially notable; he played at the house for hours and then stayed to interact with the crowd.

“It was so lucky that we got him to perform here,” said Remi Wolf, a senior in the popular music program who runs the group’s various social media accounts. “The fact that he was down to do this house party in this relatively small space, it was just so awesome.”

On Friday, saxophonist Alex Hahn stopped by the Portland Street Sessions while touring for his upcoming album, Emerging. The album, which will be released on Friday, includes classical and cinematic influences, adding new layers to the complex jazz harmonies.

After Hahn impressed the audience with dynamic cuts from the album alongside his band, he noted how the venue’s intimate setting allowed for a more rewarding experience.

“For the environment to be about listening, and about the music, that’s something that’s super special,” Hahn said.

Hahn graduated from the Thornton School of Music in 2016, and is still plugged into the community of musicians at the school. He says his fellow students gave him significant growth in his artistry.

“Everybody’s helping each other out, everybody just wants to play and learn … it was a great environment for me,” Hahn said. “Everybody was always so encouraging.”

Shearn-Nance and Hahn have played together in the past during their time at USC, and on Friday the party’s host hopped on the drums to back up his guest. This type of seamless collaboration is encouraged at the Portland Street Sessions, especially in the jam sessions that follow every performance.

“Last time, there was a random guy who was walking down the street and just heard [us because] the windows were open and he was so stoked,” said Larry Scanniello, a senior majoring in pop music who lives at the house. “He came in and he was jamming, and he was a genuinely good bass player! He really could play.”

The Portland Street Sessions is entirely student-run, receiving no administrative or financial support from USC. It’s a nonprofit in the truest sense: Listeners don’t pay to get in, and artists aren’t paid to play.

“As a musician myself, that’s really important to me,” Shearn-Nantz said. “I tend to not feel very good about performing for free when I know that concert promoter over there is making money, that doesn’t really make sense. But because no one is making money out of this enterprise … we’ve been able to have some incredible musicians who typically would get paid quite a lot to perform.”

For someone who isn’t as well-acquainted with jazz, Scanniello believes attending a live show is the best way to fall in love with the genre.

“Seeing jazz live, it’s a totally different animal than listening to the recording,” Scanniello said. “You can see the communication between everybody … it’s just more intense because so much of it is improvised. It’s just that aspect, always wondering what’s going to happen next.”

Hahn pointed out the range of styles in the genre, ensuring there’s an artist out there for everyone.

“Saying the word ‘jazz’ doesn’t mean a certain thing,” Hahn said. “There’s so much jazz out there, from Robert Glasper collaborating with hip-hop artists to Wynton Marsalis, who’s playing Dixieland tunes from the ’10s and the ’20s. I think that’s a big part of why jazz going forward, or really since it was created, has been so successful.”

The Portland Street Sessions take place twice a month, with a new performer slated for each night. Avant-jazz/post-rock group Hunter Gather will be taking the stage at the next show on Sept. 22, along with singer-songwriter Madison Douglas, a current pop music performance student at USC.