Portland Jazz Festival preview: Stellar names and rising stars

12th annual festival offers 12 days and nights of first class local and international improvisers.

by ANGELA ALLEN

Always drawing jazz royalty and trailblazing musicians, the Portland Jazz Festival has conscientiously booked international names — but not always world-famous ones, at least not yet. Take Somi, who will open for festival-opener Bebel Gilberto on Wednesday, Feb. 18, at the Newmark Theatre. She’s expected to “knock us all down,” said Don Lucoff, PDX Jazz executive director.

Haven’t heard of Somi? The East African singer, mentored by by the legendary trumpeter and composer Hugh Masekela, is a mix of poet, scholar, and Ted Talker. “She’ll be a surprise in the way that Cécile McLorin Salvant (French-AmericanWomanChild phenom) was last year,” Lucoff added.

Somi performs Feb. 18. Photo: Glynis Carpentar.

Somi performs Feb. 18. Photo: Glynis Carpentar.

The most ambitious undertaking in the 12-year festival history, 2015’s musical feast will feature more than 100 musicians and 12 days of music from Feb. 18 to March 1.

Founded to celebrate Black History Month, the festival – with new offices in the Alberta District saluting Portland’s Jumptown origins – was conceived to amp up cultural tourism in February’s sleepy, soggy Portland. That it does, as it overlaps with the Portland International Film Festival.

PDX Jazz Fest continues to grow, even if jazz musicians often play to small audiences, smaller than opera’s even. It will serve up 12 days of music instead of 10 as it has in previous years. Organizers hope to see close to 17,000 jazz fans, with one-quarter of them traveling from out of town, primarily from Seattle, California and the East Coast.

True to the music’s improvising and budget-minded heart (though some headliner shows are pricier this year than in previous times), this year’s lineup plays to a wide range of tastes and wallets. Acts will pop up mostly in downtown Portland but occasionally elsewhere in the metro area in more than 20 venues, including hotel lobbies, churches and restaurants as well as such larger concert halls as the Newmark and Winningstad theaters, Aladdin Theater, Lewis and Clark College’s Evans Auditorium, and of course, Portland’s true-blue jazz club, Jimmy Mak’s. The Schnitzer won’t host anything.

The schedule includes events from free-to-the-public “jazz conversations” with musicians to $59 tickets for hotshot headliners like Kurt Elling crooning ‘60s-era Sinatra.

MacArthur award winning pianist and composer Vijay Iyer also performed at the festival in 2012. Photo: Fran Kaufman.

MacArthur award winning pianist and composer Vijay Iyer also performed at the festival in 2012. Photo: Fran Kaufman.

An added dose of blues and soul will come from Alabama-based St. Paul & the Broken Bones, a “pre-opener” collaboration with Soul’d Out, on Tuesday, Feb. 17, at the Roseland Theater. The official headliner, however, is Brazilian vocalist Bebel Gilberto (daughter of João Gilberto and singer Miúcha and niece of singer/composer Chico Buarque) on Feb. 18. That show and those featuring vocalist Elling, pianist Vijay Iyer, and cool jazz’s venerable sax icon Lee Konitz, are anticipated sell-outs.

Big names (in jazz) with (almost) as much star power as projected sell-outs include sophisticated pianist Bill Charlap, 27-year-old guitarist Julian Lage, Motown sweetheart Freda Payne, 2015 Grammy Award-winner Billy Childs (Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro won in the Best Arrangement & Vocals category) and bassist Christian McBride in concert with 87-year-old jazz master saxophonist Lou Donaldson.

Stay tuned for the closers. Take your pick on Sunday, March 1, between double-bassist Ron Carter, who sided Miles Davis and has his name and bass lines on some 2,000 albums, playing with Benny Green Trio at the Newmark, or tri-talented (vocals, guitar, organ) “Son of a Bluesman” Lucky Peterson, performing at the Aladdin Theater. Or see ‘em both.

Some other highlights aside from international up-and-comers:

Pianist Taylor Eigsti performs solo and as a band leader, adjudicator and band member.

Pianist Taylor Eigsti performs solo and as a band leader, adjudicator and band member.

* Pianos aplenty. Many solo pianists are on the schedule. For starters, Marc Cary (longtime pianist for Abbey Lincoln), Tyler Eigsti, Elling collaborator Laurence Hobgood, and Portland’s Tony Pacini (not to mention Bill Charlap and Vijay Iyer) will solo. The Classic Pianos concerts, where a number of pianists will play, are bargains at $18, $20 at the door.

* Big bands. The first Jazz Forward High School Big Band Competition will unfold from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. the first weekend, Feb. 19 to Feb. 21, in Lincoln Hall, where students will compete for cash. Musicians Eigsti, Becca Stevens, Greta Matassa and Ralph Bowen will be among the high-profile judges.

* Here’s looking at Ol’ Blue Eyes. This year marks Frank Sinatra’s centennial, so anticipate many references to Ol’ Blue Eyes. Elling pays tribute, backed by Portland’s Art Abrams Swing Machine Band on Friday, Feb. 20, at the Newmark Theatre with pianist Charlap (another surprise) on some tunes. New York’s Charlap, one of today’s most acclaimed jazz pianists, will have his own gig the next night, Saturday, Feb. 21, at the Winningstad. Both will be part of a Jazz Conversation on Friday, Feb. 20, at the ArtBar and Bistro. Guess who they’ll talk about?

Portland native Hailey Niswanger plays music from her forthcoming album.

Portland native Hailey Niswanger plays music from her forthcoming album.

* Local lights. Portland jazz musicians are fully in, playing alongside stars (Darrell Grant and Farnell Newton will accompany Somi) and gigging on their own. If you want fresh, look for saxophonist Hailey Niswanger, a hard-working horn-blowing alumna of Portland-based Thara Memory’s American Music Program and a newly minted Berklee College of Music graduate. She’ll play Jimmy Mak’s on Friday, Feb. 27, releasing her latest album, PDX Soul.

* PDX/NYC. An efficient way to see Portland musicians is to hear the NYC to PDX Jazz Project on Tuesday, Feb. 24, at Jimmy Mak’s. How could Portland jazzers work without New York City’s influence? A project of Portland pianist Grant, who worked with Betty Carter and Greg Osby, the first set will showcase Alan Jones, Grant, David Friesen, John Stowell and Tim Willcox. The second set features Gordon Lee, Chris Brown, Chris Higgins, Ryan Meagher and Tom Barber.

Portland Jazz Festival runs Feb. 18-March 1 at various Portland venues. Check the festival  website for ticket information, schedule and jazzers’ bios.

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts, especially music. She pursues photography and poetry and teaches creative writing in the Portland schools.

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