Portland Jazz Festival preview: Trane’s Tracks

This year’s jazz extravaganza celebrates the 90th birthday of the great saxophonist, composer, improviser and bandleader John Coltrane

by ANGELA ALLEN

“Coltrane has the power to move people,” says up-and-coming Portland-grown saxophonist Nicole Glover. “He can reach that special place in you that only you have access to. Some people may call it soul. … But you don’t have to be a spiritual person to feel it move you.”

JohnColtraneWikiJohn Coltrane would have been 90 years old this year. The revered saxophonist died five decades ago, but there’s no killing off his art.  Coltrane’s uncannily precise technique that led to the description “sheets of sound” – and more, his unconditional and spiritual devotion to music –  continue to run through jazz’s veins.

The Portland Jazz Festival is honoring him for 11 nights, with the Spanish Harlem Orchestra opening Feb. 18 at Portland’s Newmark Theatre.  About 100 events – 31 of them ticketed –  are at  big and small venues, including hotel lobbies, throughout the Portland area. Many visiting musicians have played with Coltrane or with his disciples who have since connected to the next and newest generation of jazzers.

Spanish Harlem Orchestra opens the PDX Jazz Festival Feb. 18. Photo: Ab McNeely.

Spanish Harlem Orchestra opens the PDX Jazz Festival Feb. 18. Photo: Ab McNeely.

Coltrane’s son, Ravi, also a sax player, will be here. Brandee Younger, who plays the harp as did Coltrane’s late wife, Alice, will be here, playing Alice Coltrane’s music. Musicians who sided with Trane will be here. So will the master’s followers who passed the music on. Consider saxophonists Gary Bartz, Orrin Evans, Charles Lloyd and Joe Lovano, all influenced by Coltrane. Then there’s Trane’s onetime bassist Reggie Workman and free jazz tenor sax titan Pharoah Sanders who played with Coltrane in the ‘60s. They’ll all be here.

Of course, the Coltrane throughlines connect to Portland musicians. Among them: Portland drummer Alan Jones will lead an Elvin Jones (Coltrane’s drummer) tribute with sax players Azar Lawrence and Sonny Fortune and bassist Jonathan Lakey Feb. 19 at Jimmy Mak’s. Longtime Portland guitarist Dan Balmer will pay respect to Trane and guitarist Kenny Burrell with saxophonist Javon Jackson Feb. 22 at Jimmy Mak’s. The festival also sponsors a new residency session featuring local jazzers playing Coltrane music at Al’s Den. Good luck finding a concert in the lineup that doesn’t hook up in some way to Coltrane.

Nicole Glover

Nicole Glover

“The spiritual and searching quality to Coltrane’s music is so incredible,” the 24-year-old Glover said from her new home in Brooklyn, NY. “There’s a universality to it. His music sounds ancient and modern all at the same time.”

Her quartet, which includes Portland’s multi-instrumentalist George Colligan, drummer Alan Jones (both of whom she considers mentors) and bassist Jonathan Lakey, will play Feb. 23 to a sold-out Jimmy Mak’s audience. Coltrane’s ballads “Dear Lord” and “After the Rain” are on Glover’s set list. Many other Portland jazz musicians will perform free throughout the festival at Portland5’s Art Bar, which is also the main site for the festival’s valuable Jazz Conversations series.

What’s new this year at the festival:

• Change of venues: Lewis and Clark College and Aladdin Theater come off the venue list; Alberta Abbey, Revolution Hall and Al’s Den are new spots for shows.

•  Most anticipated show: Vocalist Alicia Olatuja, in Portland last year with Billy Childs’s band doing a Laura Nyro retrospective, this year leads her own group. She’s double- billed with drummer Brian Blade’s Fellowship Band at 7 p.m. at Revolution Hall. (Blade, one of jazz’s most in-demand drummers, played with Wayne Shorter in 2015 at the same place.)

• Exciting solo pianists, as last year, are abundant. Several concerts are at Classic Pianos though others are elsewhere around town. Look forward to Sullivan Fortner, David Goldblatt, Chano Dominguez, Aaron Goldberg, Clay Giberson and Grant Richards, among others.

• Main sponsor:  Biamp, a Beaverton-based audio company, is taking the lead for its first festival.

•  Rather than spotlight Coltrane, trumpeter and recent Thelonious Monk Competition winner Marquis Hill will channel the late great post-bop trumpeter Freddie Hubbard at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 26 at Jimmy Mak’s.  Hill also performs the national anthem at the Portland Trailblazers’ game Feb. 25.

Ravi Coltrane performs Feb. 26 and 27.

Ravi Coltrane performs Feb. 26 and 27.

• Vocalist Dianne Reeves and 2016 Grammy Award-winner guitarist John Scofield (for his album Past Present in the Best Instrumentalist Jazz Album category) are among big names in addition to those mentioned above. Gonzo guitarist Pat Martino, bassist Gary Peacock, who turns 81 in May, and pianist Kenny Barron will all bring trios.

They represent many different styles and generations of the vast and ever expanding galaxy of jazz, but this year, one sound will echo throughout the festival.

“In a way, the Coltrane tribute is every time you pick up the horn,” Glover says. “Playing the music is a tribute.”

The 2016 Portland Jazz Festival runs Feb. 18-28 at various venues.  A complete list of events is at pdxjazz.com.  

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

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