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PDX Jazz Festival 2023: More Hip Hop than Bebop

The festival’s 20th anniversary edition mixes jazz legends with new generation beats drawn from electronic dance music, hip hop, and global rhythms.

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Hiatus Kaiyote. Photo: Tre Koch

As the annual BiAmp PDX Jazz Festival returns to celebrate its 20th anniversary, Oregon’s biggest jazz event returns to a jazz world that was already experiencing generational upheaval long before the first Covid-19 attacks. And this year’s festival reflects that change. 

It’s a needed one. For too long, jazz as an institution too often looked backward, toward some imagined era of purity.  Too many concerts and festivals offered more admiration of the past than adventure — a dire sign for any vital art form. Or as one of the city’s more accomplished and progressive jazz artists once muttered to me, “[jazz audiences] in Portland just wanna hear their record collections.” I worried that jazz’s fondest admirers were ensnaring the art form we all adore in the same ancestor-worshipping death cult that classical music is only now beginning to extricate itself from, with orchestras becoming essentially high-priced, taxpayer supported cover bands for long dead composers. (At least jazz’s pantheon consisted mostly of our fellow Americans.) In Portland, especially before the valuable advent of Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, too many jazz institutions seemed  to prize celebrating the old at the expense of continuing cultural relevance. In truth, jazz, like all music, all art, has ever been a happy hybrid, continually evolving by embracing external influences.

The problem is that those enthusiasts — and I count myself among them — are also often the primary source of subscription and ticket revenue, in both jazz and classical music. Which is why, to my mind, the path forward — for artists, concerts, and festivals alike — doesn’t mean ghettoizing or excluding either the old or the new, the pure or the hybrid, but rather astutely balancing both, showing the continuity between progenitors and their legacies, and thereby preserving existing listeners, winning new ones, building stronger audiences for the entire line, extending forward, backward, sideways. That’s what PDX Jazz Festival, like so many other jazz institutions, is trying to manage: striking a commercially and creatively viable balance among the music of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. 

That’s never been more apparent than in this year’s lineup. Maybe half the acts performing Feb. 17-26 at various Portland-area venues sound little like what many old school purists would consider jazz. It’s more about beats than bop. Call it jazz-adjacent or whatever, but this year’s festival, like the rapidly evolving jazzscape itself, presents as wide and welcome a variety of improvisationally influenced music as it ever has. Whether that represents a forward-looking view or a lateral one — to other kinds of music — it’s most definitely not a backward gaze.

This festival, like so many, may be a little smaller than its recent pre-pandemic predecessors; it peaked in 2020 at more than 100 events over 15 days, and began to pick up when last year’s festival returned to live performances after an all-virtual 2021 fest. Not everyone is ready to return to live performances in close quarters with other audience members. But even this year’s 75 events in 10 days in 30+ venues considerably outdistances its first edition two decades ago, a two-day event mostly happening in the big downtown hotel ballrooms. 

Broadening the Scope

The scope of musical styles featured has similarly expanded, especially since executive director Chris Doss and artistic director Nicholas Salas-Harris assumed leadership five and four years ago, respectively. 

“We’ve broadened out to where we’re pulling in the full breadth of jazz music,” Doss explains. “We’re not just focused on the music made in the 1950s and 60s the heyday of jazz. A lot of the young artists have a much wider array of influences shaping their jazz compositions.”

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It wasn’t that long ago that jazz was often derided as old people’s music, but a fresh influx of young players cheerfully crossing musical boundaries – in both directions, from jazz into hip hop, R&B and various global pop flavors, and vice versa — has energized the field with new vitality. “Right now, jazz is having a resurgence in the US,” Doss says, giving the festival a plentiful and deepening artist pool to draw from. 

The directors’ goal is to expand the audience along with the musical ambit. “We’re a nonprofit and one of our goals is to serve the entire community,” Doss says. “To reach as many people as possible, we have to program music that’s already relevant to them. A lot of these young jazz artists are taking other influences like funk and hip hop and EDM and weaving it into their music as jazz musicians, which is providing a nugget that other listeners are familiar with and drawing them into the jazz community, and then they can discover new artists they may have been unfamiliar with.”

PDX Jazz executive director Chris Doss.

Doss cites as an example one of this year’s festival artists, Kiefer, whose Feb. 25 show at the Star Theater also includes an inspired pairing with the seductive grooves of Portland’s Omari Jazz.

“He studied jazz at UCLA but composes music that draws on the very edges of jazz genre and those edges are where music lies that people who may not know about jazz are familiar with,” Doss says. “That’s definitely a show that somebody in their 20s would likely enjoy.” Even an older, casual jazz fan could also groove to the airy, laid-back instrumentals of Kiefer’s easygoing 2021 release When There’s Love Around. (The pianist/beatmaker also won a Grammy for producing Anderson.Paak’s Ventura.) 

Some festival artists, as Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock and others did half a century ago, are straddling both past and future. This year’s festival provides a fascinating example in the great drummer Mark Guiliana’s two highly recommended shows. The first features the prolific, award-winning sideman and, recently, leader in a traditional straight ahead quartet setting, maybe as in last year’s lovely acoustic album the sound of listening, and the second in an EDM influenced concert, perhaps as in his other 2022 release, Music for Doing. Not surprisingly for a much admired musician who’s played with everyone from David Bowie (on Blackstar) to Meshell Ndegeocello to John Scofield, both are excellent, both recognizably arise from the same artist despite their different means, and both can likely appeal to audiences who enjoy either. 

Mark Guiliana

 Other festival artists’ output reveals the same dichotomy, or is that dialectic? It’s not just festivals and concerts that are embracing a wider range of influences — it’s also many of the artists themselves. And apparently audiences as well.

“We’re definitely starting to skew to a younger audience,” Doss says about the last few festivals. “The shows that appeal to the younger audiences are thriving for PDX Jazz. The age of our audience has gotten significantly younger, which bodes well for the future of the organization.” And for the future of jazz, in Portland and beyond.

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Hip Hop Hybrids

Jazz’s hook up with hip hop has produced some of the 21st century’s most enticing sounds. This year’s PDX Jazz Festival incorporates some of today’s more intriguing explorers of that borderland, much of it mellow and/or downtempo varieties. 

How many bands have played both PDX Jazz Festival and Coachella? One of the festival’s most compelling concerts is the Feb. 21 show — at no less than downtown’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall — that brings Melbourne, Australia quartet Hiatus Kaiyote, which winningly blends soul, funk, R&B and other influences into a sizzling stew they call “wondercore.” It’s a double bill with the torrid Virginia quintet Butcher Brown, which draws on similar influences (a little less soul electronica, a little more rap) but to quite different, though equally exciting, effect. Butcher Brown gets its own late night showcase at Jack London Revue Feb. 25.

Butcher Brown. Photo: Jacob Blickenstaff

Haitus’s breakout show was opening for keyboardist/beatboxer Taylor McFerrin, who (along with, later, Prince and Questlove) eagerly helped bring them to international attention. McFerrin and Marcus Gilmore may have inherited their opportunities from famous forebears (Bobby McFerrin and Roy Haynes, respectively) but their musical directions are their own, and of their own time. Between them, they’ve collaborated with several generations of stars from Herbie Hancock to Thundercat to Pat Metheny to Robert Glasper. Their Feb. 22 Old Church show offers another glimpse into today’s fertile jazz/hip-hop hybrids. 

One of the first breakthrough jazz-juiced hip hop groups was Brooklyn’s Digable Planets, known combining incisive beats and lyrics with classic Blue Note samples and more. Visionary DP founder Ishmael Butler went on to start Seattle’s Shabazz Palaces, which leaned into funk, R&B and African sounds, the last thanks in part to bandmate Tendai “Baba” Maraire, son of the most revered Northwest mbira master Dumisami Maraire. Their Feb. 22 show at Alberta Rose Theatre also includes Moor Mother, whose dizzying latest album Jazz Codes includes spoken word, hip hop, loops and free jazz, while digging deep into jazz history, even name checking farsighted jazz forebears like Mary Lou Williams, Woody Shaw and Joe McPhee.

Jazz also meets hip hop in the music of Chicago-based Japanese American singer/producer/poet/multi instrumentalist Sen Morimoto. His silky songs, on display in a Feb. 24 festival showcase at Jack London Revue, also include spoken word rap and sounds from less conventional sources.

Moor Mother

Hip hop isn’t this festival’s only pop music partner with jazz. The lineup also offers blues (Portland legend Curtis Salgado with revered blues harpist/singer Charlie Musselwhite Feb. 23 Revolution Hall show, one of your best shots at master blues till July’s Blues Festival), New Orleans funk (scion of Meters/Nevilles royalty Ivan Neville and Dumpstaphunk, with pianist Jon Cleary Feb. 24 at Aladdin Theater), and soul/funk with Budos Band and ever-exuberant Sexmob (the great former Lounge Lizard Steven Bernstein on slide trumpet) Feb. 18 at Roseland Theater. 

“I think my music sounds like a mix of John Mayer, and John Legend with a bit of Allen Stone in there somewhere,” Bay Area guitarist/ singer/ producer/ songwriter Christian Kuria told an interviewer, and that sounds about right, plus a little jazz to go with the smooth, soulful vocals. He’s playing Holocene on Feb. 19. 

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Global Reach

Although jazz was born in America, most of its DNA derives from Africa and its influence has spread worldwide. PDX Jazz Festival accordingly brings several global acts to town. It’s not the first time. Some years back, PDX Jazz Festival devoted a series of subtly scintillating shows to Scandinavian jazz, mostly from artists on the revered ECM label, and really opened my ears to just how potent 21st century jazz had developed in that region. One of its finest exponents, Swedish pianist Tord Gustavsen, brings his latest trio and electronics to The Old Church Feb. 21 in what promises to be a spellbinding show that undergirds his label’s renowned understand ethereality with  percolating rhythmic textures that can achieve surprising intensity.

Tord Gustavsen

More Nordic strains — as well as Brazilian rhythms — emerge in Swedish-born, Portland based saxophonist Catarina New’s free trio show at AC Hotel on Feb. 17. There’s a lot more South American sounds in Brazilian Guitar Duo’s free Feb. 25 show at Portland’5 ArtBar. Portlanders Ben Graves and Nat Hulskamp (of the fine duo Seffarine and others) play music of Jobim, Nascimento, Bona and more. 

Yemen Blues combines West African and Yemeni musical influences with jazz, blues, modern funk, mambo and other Latin rhythms, with composer/singer Ravid Kahalani’s songs delivered by a multi-culti band on oud, horns, percussion and strings. Their Feb. 19 show at Mississippi Studios promises to be one of the year’s most eruptive global music concerts.

If your taste in African music runs more toward the continent’s east end, head to the west side of the Tualatin Hills to Beaverton’s Reser Center on Feb. 17 to catch San Francisco-based Ethio-American singer/composer Meklit, whose music blends jazz with Ethiopian and American pop sounds. She’s worked with Andrew Bird, Kronos Quartet, and even James Brown saxophone legend Pee Wee Ellis.

Meklit. Photo: Ibra Acke.

Maybe the most renowned name on the whole schedule is the storied Benin-born French singer Angélique Kidjo, who’d earned a planet-spanning audience years before she won a whole new slew of fans for her recent remake/reimagination of Talking Heads’s greatest achievement, Remain in Light. Of course, that 1980 classic was itself fueled by the glorious Afrobeat textures of Fela Kuti and others, so maybe “reclaiming” is the right word for what turned into one of those rare revisits that approach the original’s splendor. Her likely sell out Feb. 17 show at Roseland Theater also includes opening act Nickodemus, the New York DJ/producer who also has his own late set that night at the more intimate Jack London Revue. His danceable sounds irresistibly infuse various global influences (India, North Africa, Latin America and more) with bubbling club beats. 

Jazz Giants

Eclecticism aside, this year’s festival definitely includes some of jazz’s biggest names, though maybe fewer than I can ever remember. In part that’s a simple reflection of time passing — many of the legends who reached whatever passes for mass recognition in jazz have ascended to immortality or stopped touring, because of age, infection concerns, or economics. Probably the most popular, the protean and prolific Grammy-winning Seattle guitarist Bill Frisell, is already sold out (don’t worry, it seems like he plays Oregon almost every year, whether at PDX Jazz or on his own in some incarnation), along with Ambrose Akinmusire, Gerald Clayton and Thee Sacred Souls, and Portland’s own Storm Large Burlesque Big Band, so we won’t be taunting you with info about those shows. Others will likely sell out in the next few days. 

At post time, tickets remain for the Saturday Feb. 25 closing concert with legendary flutist Hubert Laws, an NEA Jazz Master who’s long crossed into classical and pop territory along with appearing on albums by jazz and pop masters from Miles to McCartney, Aretha to Ella and many more. He’s joined by fellow flutist and keyboardist/singer Brian Jackson, whose name may be less familiar than that of his longtime artistic partner, Gil Scott-Heron and more recent collaborators like Kendrick Lamar (who frequently colludes with young jazz artists) and Common. Immediately before their Newmark Theatre concert, they’ll also participate in one of my fave festival events, a jazz conversation (facilitated by one of the finest writers on jazz, Ashley Kahn) at the Portland5 Artbar in the Newmark lobby, one of several throughout the fest.

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The previous night’s headline show features the festival’s other venerated NEA Jazz Master, bassist extraordinaire Dave Holland, the multi-Grammy award winning English virtuoso who first won fame in Miles Davis’s early 1970s band and went on to provide the pulse for hundreds of albums by most of jazz’s biggest names of the last half century, from avant-garde to traditional. Though he plays what’s often a background instrument, Holland’s also an underrated band leader; a quartet show I caught more than a decade ago reached a few of those magical stretches familiar to lucky jazz fans in which all the musicians have somehow locked into a transcendent musical voyage that exceeds even their own expectations or understanding. I remember the copper-bearded leader, who’d lit the fuse, grinning in delight amid the swirl of sublimity. This time, he’ll lead a trio of fellow multiple award winning all-stars from a younger generation, guitarist (and Tonight Show musical director) Kevin Eubanks and drummer Eric Harland. Fellow bassist extraordinaire and Blue Note artist Derrick Hodge’s trio opens. 

Modern Masters

Along with the revered elders, plenty of young musicians find beauty and innovation in traditional jazz territories, and Doss especially recommends the Feb. 20 doubleheader concert featuring 2022 Grammy and Downbeat Award-winning pianists Kris Davis and James Francies. One of New York’s hottest young rising stars over the past decade, Davis’s keyboards have enlivened albums by some of jazz’s most innovative artists (Tyshawn Sorey, Craig Taborn, Mary Halvorson to Terri Lyne Carrington et al), and she’s also winning acclaim as a composer, influenced not just by modernist jazz but also modernist to minimalist classical masters like Ligeti, Reich and Feldman. Pianist/producer Francies has strayed from the straight ahead path into projects with Childish Gambino, The Roots, and Common as well as jazz masters like Pat Metheny and Chris Potter. If you’re looking for a show that signals some of jazz’s possible futures, this could be it. 

Pianists James Francies and Kris Davis share a sensational double bill.

Saxophonist Aaron Burnett is one of several visitors working in a relatively traditional jazz setting but still finding exciting ways to make the old forms sound new, with occasional excursions afield. He’s worked with Vijay Iyer and other top tier players, toured with Esperanza Spalding, and his trio plays Jack London Revue Feb. 25. Later that night, Winningstad Theater hosts Mike Phillips’s band. You’ve likely heard his saxophone, even if you don’t recognize his common name. After all, he’s toured with Stevie Wonder, Prince, and Michael Jackson, played NFL halftime shows and Cirque du Soleil spectaculars, as well as releasing a string of solo albums in a pop jazz vein.

Showing just how diverse even “traditional” jazz could be, if your tastes run more toward John Coltrane’s latter-day (say, A Love Supreme to the final recordings) spiritual jazz, try the surging sounds of I AM (woodwind wizard Isaiah Collier & second-gen Nigerian-American drummer Michael Shekowoaga Ode) on Feb. 18 or the fierier flurries of Scatter The Atoms That Remain  on Feb. 17, both at Jack London Revue.

Local Luminaries

PDX Jazz used to garner criticism for its focus on touring shows at the expense of local performers. Doss says that lately, they’ve wound up with around 20-30 local performers, including an annual First Call series that highlights a prominent Portland musicians, last year Darrell Grant, this year another esteemed PSU prof and exceptional pianist, George Colligan, who’s also an able improviser on drums and trumpet. The DownBeat award winner and frequent collaborator with drum legend Jack DeJohnette is one of Oregon’s most nationally renowned jazzmen, having worked with many of today’s most prominent jazz masters. His Feb. 17 trio show at the Old Church fully merits comparison in quality to any of the festival’s road shows. 

George Colligan

Another Portland standard bearer, drummer Mel Brown, brings his ever-delightful organ trio with guitarist Dan Balmer, Hammond virtuoso Louis Pain and saxophonist Renato Caranto, to Jack London Revue on Feb. 23, with guest singers Arietta Ward and Sean Holmes.

Jack London also hosts another major local show Feb. 20, when Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble and composer/pianist Jasnam Daya Singh perform his Ekta: The Unity Project. As I wrote in ArtsWatch when it was released on record: Premiered at the Montavilla Jazz Festival in 2017, Singh’s ambitious composition embraces influences from Brazilian choro and samba (which he played growing up in Brazil), European and American jazz, even some classical gestures. Yet for all its diversity, the multi-movement suite lives up to its subtitle, achieving a seamless, organic glow. Warm, breezy and inviting, it features lovely interplay between Singh’s piano and low-range instruments like baritone sax, bass clarinet, and trombones, as well as cool clarinet, flute and sax passages set off against warm flugelhorn.

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I also wrote about rising young trombonist and composer Adriana Wagner in an ArtsWatch story last year. You can see how she’s developed since she recently graduated from the jazz program at Portland State University in a free trio show Feb. 17 at University Place Hotel.

Noah Simpson

Among the many other local artist showcases, many of them free of charge, standouts include the elegant, breezy straight ahead jazz of pianist Machada Mijiga’s trio, which plays Feb. 21 at Jupiter NEXT. Trumpeter Noah Simpson’s show was one of the highlights of last year’s Montavilla Jazz Festival, and you can catch his quartet free at Lovely Rita at The Hoxton on Feb. 22. Singer Mia Nicholson has long been a reliably enchanting jazz singer in Portland, and sheer quartet gets a free festival showcase Feb. 17 at The Benson Hotel.

And to bless the whole fest, St. James Vespers at downtown Portland’s St James Lutheran Church on Feb. 19 features pianist Mike Horsfall’s trio with superb singer Marilyn Keller. It’s described as “an all-inclusive, meditative evening service of word and music in the form of a jazz tinged original liturgy, punctuated with jazz standards throughout.”

Marilyn Keller

That’s only a smattering of many fine local performances we just don’t have room to mention, but you can learn about them all at the festival website. Pay special attention to the many free shows, which offer a wonderful opportunity to check out some of our locavore jazz delight, as well as some absorbing-looking talks and films. Please let us know in comments below what worthy shows we’ve omitted, what you’re looking forward to seeing, or, after the fact, what you enjoyed, so we can keep them on our radar for future previews. 

I think of this year’s PDX Jazz Festival not as a glimpse into jazz’s future nor a wallow into jazz’s admittedly wondrous past, but rather a welcome sampling of various kinds of vital music that imbibes — even if sometimes only in trace amounts — from jazz’s fountain of eternal youth. What could be more inherently young than music that’s more or less made up in the moment you’re hearing it? If we must seek the imprimatur of jazz royalty for the festival’s eclectic approach, remember it was none other than the Duke himself who pronounced the music he played “beyond category.” That’s never been truer for PDX Jazz Festival than this year.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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