by ANGELA ALLEN
The past year saw a number of members of jazz royalty ascend to jazz Valhalla: Jon Hendricks, Al Jarreau, Geri Allen, Thara Memory and Hugh Masekela, among others. But jazz lives on. This year’s Portland Jazz Festival provides an array of platforms for living musicians to honor jazz’s passed masters, and to continue the tradition with their own music.
In conjunction with Black History Month, the festival, in its 15th year, will present close to 200 musicians, many of them local. About 100 events (about half of them ticketed) feature longtime jazz luminaries and emerging musicians for 11 days from Feb. 15 through Feb. 25.
The music of John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk served as previous festivals’ organizing principles. This year’s lineup focuses on tributes to a number of late musicians. “It’s a snapshot, an inner glimpse at what makes jazz great,” says PDX Jazz Executive Director Don Lucoff.
Vocalist Kurt Elling will pay homage to the late Jon Hendricks alongside Hendricks’ daughters Michele and Aria, Portland vocalist Nancy King and the Portland State University Jazz Vocal Ensemble at 7 p.m. Feb. 16 at Revolution Hall. A free jazz conversation with Elling will be at noon on Feb. 15 at PSU’s Lincoln Hall.
The Geri Allen tribute, featuring drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, sax player Ravi Coltrane and bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding will memorialize Allen, who Spalding calls “a divine prism of pure heart and artistry.” That show is at 7 p.m. Feb. 22 in Newmark Theatre. PSU professor and composer Darrell Grant worked with Allen and calls her his most important influence. He will be on stage with a solo or two.
Add to those tributes Bobby Torres Ensemble playing the late Al Jarreau’s “Breakin’ Away” music at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 19 at University of Portland’s Buckley Center, a new venue this year. At the Old Church, vocalist Allen Harris will team up with saxophonist Richie Cole to commemorate Eddie Jefferson at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 20. Portland sax player Devin Phillips and his trio will pay their respects to John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins at 8 p.m. Feb. 24 at the Jack London Revue.
This year the festival locus shifts more to southeast Portland from downtown. The newly renovated Revolution Hall, with a 850-seat capacity, will host eight headliner shows, including the Brazilian poet-singer Luciana Souza/Dave King Trio double-bill (Feb. 17); violinist Regina Carter performing Ella Fitzgerald hits in a double-bill with the Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan Duo (Feb. 18); and 83-year-old South Africa-born pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and his 1983-born Ekaya ensemble on Feb. 21. Ibrahim (a/k/a “South Africa’s Mozart” and Dollar Brand) will be onstage without his fellow South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, who died earlier this year. Expect to hear tributes to Masekela.
Tickets for headliner shows range from $29 to $69, but many performances cost far less, most notably at such smaller venues as Mississippi Studios, Mission Theater and Classic Pianos. And many gigs are free at hotels and restaurants.
The festival ends at Rev Hall with saxophonist Javon Jackson’s Jazz By Five show on Feb. 25, which will open with Portland drummer prodigy Domo Branch’s group. Branch, 17, is a student at Grant High School and a mentee of sax player Devin Phillips. Aside from Jackson, Jazz By Five includes heavyweights NEA Jazz Master Joanne Brackeen, trumpeter Randy Brecker, Miles Davis’ drummer Jimmy Cobb, and Bill Evans’ bassist Eddie Gomez. Can’t get better than that.
“(Pianist) Kenny Barron said this is a ‘real festival, one of the best in the world,’” Lucoff notes. “Esperanza Spalding is returning for the fourth time since 2011. [Legendary saxophonist] Jimmy Heath loves it.”
Even with so many notables having passed on recently, today’s living legends still relish the chance to continue the music at the Portland Jazz Festival.
• Vocalese, the art of singing jazz improv, is front and center at Al’s Den throughout the festival. Vocalists appearing at Al’s include Shirley Nanette, David Watson, Kathleen Hollingsworth, Jeremy Joyce, Robert Moore, Alyssa McDonald and the Laurent Nickel trio.
• Up and coming offspring of Portland jazz elders will appear. Singer Tahirah Memory, daughter of Thara Memory who died in 2017 and taught young Portland-area musicians through his American Music Program and mentored bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding, will join the eclectic band of Lisa Fischer & Grand Baton at 7 p.m. Feb. 20 at Revolution Hall. Vocalist/percussionist Haley Horsfall, daughter of longtime Portland pianist/vibraphonist Mike Horsfall, will play with guitarist Cameron Morgan from 5-7 p.m. Feb. 20 in a free gig at the AC Hotel.
• Next-generation emerging jazzers, local and from out of town, pop up frequently throughout the 11 days at Mississippi Studios, the Old Church, Mission Theater, and hotels and restaurants. Check them out.
• There are many free events. Jazz Conversations cost nothing, and some are interviews with big names like Elling, Ibrahim and Ravi Coltrane.
• Portland’s beloved Randy Porter, a Grammy–nominated pianist, will put on his “Porter Plays Porter” gig with singer Nancy King and the David Friesen Reunion Trio in a sold-out concert at 4 p.m. Feb. 18 at the Winningstad Theatre. Dr. Lonnie Smith’s concert is also sold out on Feb. 23 at the Winningstad.
• Biamp, a Portland audio-visual equipment company, continues to be the festival’s main sponsor.
Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative and journalistic writing to Portland-area students. Her web site is angelaallenwrites.com.
Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!