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PDX Jazz Festival 2024: Local musicians Lo Steele, Methods Body, and greaterkind held their own

This year’s festival of “Black American Music” featured hot touring artists and returning Oregonians alongside up-and-coming new locals.


Oregon musician Lo Steele.
Oregon musician Lo Steele.

If you stepped out into the nasty February weather to experience any of the10-day PDX Jazz Festival, surely you noticed that jazz is holding tight to its roots–and, as always, branching out into brave new territory. Built on improvisation and change, the music never, ever stays the same. Even the word, jazz, is giving way to another term, Black American Music (BAM), as Nicholas Payton argues. John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus, among others, balked at the word jazz, calling it a term that restrained and pigeonholed their music and built a barrier between “high” and “low” art. 

Whatever the labels, there’s no time to debate them when 10 days of powerful music are in town. The ever-evolving “genre’s” inclusiveness was insanely inclusive, as the 21st PDX Jazz Festival proved during its run of 35 ticketed, and sometimes double-billed shows, and 30 community events Feb. 16-March 2 in dozens of Portland venues. There were 13 sellouts, including headliner Jon Batiste, West African musicians Bassekou Kouyate and Vieux Farka Toure, and Stella Cole, a rising vocalist and TikTok phenom who has yet to produce an album. The free community events drew record numbers, PDX Jazz Executive Director Chris Doss said.

Reaching older crowds and the younger audiences

Dianne Reeves, an NEA Jazz Master who has won five Grammys, sang “Footprints,” an often performed standard written by Wayne Shorter in 1966, at Revolution Hall on Feb 29. Old school? Not even close. Even if she’s 67 (not old!) and steeped in decades of jazz, Reeves puts on a magnificent audience-conscious concert. In this 80-minute show, her repertoire ranged from R&B, gospel, latin, pop with scatting thrown in. She praises her band to the stars, which it deserves.

Yet a few minutes before on the same stage, Lo Steele, a Portland singer and fast-rising star who is a couple of generations younger than Reeves, belted out cuts from her new Happy Girl LP, backed by Portland’s talented greaterkind artists Charlie Brown, Peter Knudsen and Cory Limuaco. The Reeves-Steele pairing was perfect, and a tribute to the smart programming of PDX Jazz’s Doss and artistic director Nichols Salas-Harris.

Sure, the festival brings in biggies like Reeves, Jon Batiste, Bob James and Lee Ritenour whose music and stage presence have stood the test of time. James, by the way, is 84 years old, and his band could be his grandkids–which of course, he mentions, keeps him young. Then there’s the cutting-edge new generation of musicians: Theo Croker, Kassa Overall, Julian Lage, Melanie Charles, Louis Cole, among others, pushing audiences to get a grip on hip hop, electronica and music beyond. You have to keep an open mind if you’re a jazz fan, or you’ll turn into a moldy fig, as the wisdom goes.

Aside from the established stars, the festival made plenty of room for Portland talent in ticketed shows, not to mention in a lineup of free community events that featured many Portland artists. In addition to Lo Steele, astoundingly graceful, poised and sexy (she conjured up an iteration of Diana Ross with her enormous cloud of hair), presenting her own songs, including the Covid-era “Give Yourself Grace,” other Portland artists proved that we are a jazz town.


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More Portland standouts

What about the trio of young saxophonists, Portland-raised and musically educated by such mentors as multi-talented George Colligan and drummer Alan Jones, who charmed The Old Church audience in a two-hour show Feb. 26? Nicole Glover, Nicole McCabe and Hailey Niswanger, in their early 30s, have gone big-time. McCabe and Niswanger live in LA now and Glover is selling out places like Smalls Jazz Club in New York City.

The three played with their Portland jazz teachers Colligan and Jones. Each woman has a different style, and all compose. Colligan, who has worked and played with all three, agrees that each has her individualistic stylistic leanings. “And I don’t think it only has to do with the fact that, respectively, soprano (Niswanger) saxophone, alto (McCabe) saxophone, and tenor (Glover) saxophone, have their own distinct sounds,” Colligan said.

I think arguably the most contemporary of the saxophonists would be Hailey Niswanger in that she does play a lot of music that has a more soul-, jazz- or jam-band-type of feel to it, although I think she’s very highly influenced by Kenny Garrett.

Nicole Glover, who was one of my students at Portland State, has a very well-rounded set of influences, which include Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Michael Brecker and Lester Young, and she has shown the ability to fit into many different musical settings from very traditional to very free settings.

Nicole McCabe, who was also one of my students at PSU has kind of always had her own sound in terms of a unique and compelling tone, quality, and I know that she’s influenced by Gary Bartz and also Kenny Garrett and Charlie Parker, of course, but she kind of also has her own approach, which is as you can hear, unique and energetic.

McCabe’s composition, the just-released “Force of Good,” proved that, but each woman had the talent and grace to step back and let the others shine. They earned every minute onstage, enhanced by Colligan on piano, LA bassist Logan Kane, and Jones on drums, who has a habit of taking his shoes off when he plays. Word is his students do the same.


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Giving dance a turn

Venturing into the other arts, the festival wedged the 6-year-old Portland dance group, the Shaun Keylock Company, into the mix. The Age of Influence, staged in the Winningstad Theatre Feb. 24 and 25, was the jazz festival’s experimental debut into dance.

Keylock chose Methods Body, with percussionist John Niekrasz and Luke Wyland on keys and electronics, to accompany his dancers. Keylock called the musical duo “heady and conceptual,” a good fit for a show that grappled with unanswered questions about humans vs. technology, inspired somewhat by Y2K turn-of-the century insecurities. “At the intersection of the near future and reimagined past,” The Age of Influence blurb went, not quite explaining everything–though narrator/dancer Andrea Parson offered text, much of which she wrote, that helped to ground the show. There was a lot to be understood, with big questions asked — and unanswered — in this somewhat spooky mysterious minimalist performance.

The music was preeminent, the dance secondary, Keylock said in a phone interview after the first of two performances. “The music is related to the cyborg. … The drums are very analog, the keyboard synthesizer seems like a cyborg. How do the human and the machine work together?” 

The musicians were involved in the performance from the beginning, said Keylock, who choreographed the piece and made an “Alfred Hitchcock” appearance partway through, proving what a good dancer he is.

“The music drove everything,” added Keylock who has choreographed Portland operas When the Sun Comes Out (2022) and Rusalka (2023). About the festival show, he said, “It’s a collaboration. Jazz has multiple voices, it takes risks. How could our dance be inspired by jazz? But at the end of day, it’s a jazz festival.”

Some nods to the best of the festival

Most creative combo: Methods Body duo, percussionist John Niekrasz and Luke Wyland on keys and electronics, shaping Shaun Keylock’s dance company’s performance, The Age of Influence.


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Best recovery: Nicole Glover’s second-half tenor-sax appearance after an unexpectedly dragging and dreary Sullivan Fortner first-half show.

Best moment: Lo Steele and her mom, Portland blues diva LaRhonda Steele, dueting on motherhood tune, “I’d choose you every time.”

Best drum solo: James Adkins of Bob James’ trio going crazy on “Topside.”

Best guitar-playing: Romero Lubamdo, accompanying Dianne Reeves’ contralto during her 80-minute set, not to dismiss Lee Ritenour’s fast fingers.

Best audience connection: Dianne Reeves, who never fails to put on a stellar show.

Tightest band: Bob James and his trio: James Adkins (drums), Michael Palazzolo (bass) and Andrey Chmut (saxophone). 


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Next vocal star: Portland’s Lo Steele.

Sorry I missed: Jon Batiste, Julian Lage with Dan Balmer, Shabaka with Esperanza Spalding.

On another note: Aladdin Theater could have cooled it on the directly in-your-face nausea-making flashing lights during the sold-out Feb. 25 Bassekou Kouyate and Vieux Farka Toure double-bill.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she was elected to the Music Critics Association of North America’s executive board and is a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.


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