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Portland Jazz Festival Preview

Justin Steyer
Bass player & composer Esperanza Spalding returns home for the Portland Jazz Festival, which begins this week.

Now in its 15th year, the Portland Jazz Festival begins this week, running February 15th through the 25th. Always a great excuse to visit the Rose City, this year's jazz festival is wide-ranging and features jazz greats, Northwest favorites, and a number of tributes from all-star groups.

As I began to write this piece, it became obvious that I'd need to limit myself to a Top 15 concerts, but this preview only scratches the surface of the impressive line-up set for PDX Jazz 15. Check out their website for the details on all 11 days of fun!

Kurt Elling, Feb. 15 (Revolution Hall) - One of the finest jazz singers of the past 30 years, Chicago's Kurt Elling always provides thrills. As fearless as he is talented, Elling will be celebrating the life of his friend, legendary vocalese singer and lyricist Jon Hendricks. Expect plenty of vocal acrobatics from Elling, New Yorker Kevin Fitzgerald Burke, Portland's own Nancy King, the PSU Jazz Vocal Ensemble and two extra special guests - Jon Hendricks' daughters Michele and Aria. Grammy nominated pianist Randy Porter's trio backs up this powerfully swinging singing extravaganza. (Kurt, Kevin and the Hendricks sisters will hold a free conversation on the music of Jon Hendricks at PSU's Lincoln Hall on the 22nd.)

David Sanchez, Feb. 16 (Winningstad Theatre) - Saxophonist David Sanchez came up with Dizzy Gillespie's United Nation Orchestra in the 90s, a wonderful setting for the young Puerto Rican to learn about the crossover of jazz and Latin music. Sanchez has since become a highly sought-after sideman and popular bandleader, winning a Grammy with his big band a dozen years ago. In Portland this month, Sanchez presents his new project CARIB - an examination of his own roots and the interconnected rhythms of West Africa and the Caribbean.

Dave King Trio / Luciana Souza & Word Strings, Feb. 17 (Revolution Hall) - The first of many outstanding double bills at the Portland Jazz Festival this year, drummer Dave King's trio shares the stage with singer Luciana Souza's new project Word Strings. King takes a break from The Bad Plus to lead one of many other projects, his trio with New York pianist/composer Matt Mitchell and bass prodigy Billy Peterson. It's nearly impossible to take your eyes off of Dave King when he's drumming, thankfully you can use your ears to hear the way these three push and pull at each other. Luciana Souza's new project puts a sharper focus on the Brazilian singer's love of poetry. Her soothing, flexible vocals bring new life to e.e. cummings, Pablo Neruda, Leonard Cohen and more. She's joined by world class musicians Chico Pinheiro and Scott Colley on guitar and bass.

Julian Lage, Feb. 17 (Winningstad Theatre) - Early attention as a young genius in the documentary Jules at Eight didn't give guitarist Julian Lage an oversized ego, in fact, just the opposite. He's one of the most sympathetic players on his instrument, wearing a wide smile on stage, happy to explore the worlds of jazz, folk, country and classical music in a single song. His new trio album Modern Lore features Scott Colley's bass and the prodigious drummer Kenny Wollesen, and the compelling blend of the aforementioned styles may just lead to a new genre: Julian Lage Music.

Randy Porter with Nancy King / David Friesen Trio, Feb. 18 (Winningstad Theatre) - The hometown takes center stage in Portland this night, with Portland's finest pianist Randy Porter performing music from his recent Cole Porter tribute album. This sophisticated master of melody welcomes his friend (and collaborator on the new album) Nancy King, the septuagenarian singer who helped Randy earn a Grammy nomination in the vocal jazz category. Portland-based bassist Dave Friesen employs Randy Porter in his own trio sharing this double bill, surely to mesmerize with melodic and harmonic tension and release.

Regina Carter / Bill Frisell & Thomas Morgan, Feb. 18 (Revolution Hall) - The world-renowned violinist Regina Carter is a musical explorer. Recent albums have displayed her African roots, her love of the blues, and classical composers. She brings her "Accentuate the Positive" project to Portland to play music associated with her first jazz hero, Ella Fitzgerald. Warmth, beauty, and unparalleled talent are the obvious connections between the two. Guitarist Bill Frisell (scheduled for a public musical conversation earlier that day) teams up with bassist Thomas Morgan, who first collaborated in the 90s on projects including Bill Evans' drummer Paul Motion's last album. Fragility meets power in this intensely connected duo.

Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya, Feb. 21 (Revolution Hall) - The world mourned the loss of legendary South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela last month, and the Portland Jazz Festival welcomes another legend of that nation's influence on the history of jazz with pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim and his band Ekaya. His compositions in the 70s were anthems of protest against South African apartheid, but to hear Ibrahim perform live is to let yourself sink into a warm, meditative state that feels as cozy as a big blanket on a rainy day. As corny as it might sound, Abdullah Ibrahim will soothe your soul.

Terri Lyne Carrington/Ravi Coltrane/Esperanza Spalding tribute to Geri Allen, Feb. 22 (Newmark Theatre) - Overlooked by many jazz fans but revered by jazz musicians, pianist and educator Geri Allen passed away last Summer. A frequent and popular guest at the Portland Jazz Festival, Allen requested Ravi Coltrane to play at the festival this year, and John's son will be joined by two of Geri Allen's most faithful followers and friends, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and Portland-native Esperanza Spalding on bass. Allen's student and fan Darrell Grant opens the show with an emotional solo remembrance. A more heartfelt and star-studded tribute would be hard to imagine.

Ethan Iverson / George Colligan Trio, Feb. 22 (Winningstad Theatre) - Two of the finest pianists in a crowded field of modern jazz players are set to fire up heady and unexpected flights of fancy in Portland this year. This double bill opens with Portland-based George Colligan in a world-class trio with Buster Williams and Lenny White on bass & drums. A frequent visitor to Seattle for years, Colligan never fails to excite and push himself to the limits - these rhythm section giants will spark quite a musical conversation. In monologue mode, Ethan Iverson will let fans of The Bad Plus know that though he's left that group after 17 years, he's got plenty to say on his own. Chamber jazz meets rock and the avant garde in the best way.

Marcus Roberts Trio/Russell Malone Quartet, Feb. 23 (Newmark Theatre) - If you prefer your jazz down the middle, swinging with more than a little blues, this double bill will be hard to beat. Two of the finest jazz musicians of the past 30 years share the stage, showing their love for tradition and the skills earned over lives dedicated to this music. Former Wynton Marsalis collaborator Marcus Roberts' long running trio is sure to display a bit of his hometown of New Orleans, even more than a week past Mardi Gras. Russell Malone is no stranger to Diana Krall's early albums, and his quartet will offer a tasty blend of standards and his own swinging originals. (Marcus Roberts will be heard in conversation at the Art Bar earlier in that evening.)

Dr Lonnie Smith, Feb. 23 (Winningstad Theatre) - A legend of soul jazz, Dr Lonnie Smith is famous for his Hammond Organ work with fellow NEA Jazz Master Lou Donaldson. A jazz icon for 5 decades, he's an authentic master of the instrument earning a lot of attention in modern jazz and soul once again. From his work on George Benson's first album to recent work with modern jazz stars Robert Glasper and Jonathan Kreisberg, the Doctor is still "in".

Miles Davis Electric Band, Feb. 24 (Revolution Hall) - Whether or not you enjoy Miles Davis' eclectic electric bands of the 70s and beyond, you can't deny that this era of Miles' music is still inspiring modern jazz musicians today. This year's festival features an "Electric Miles" tribute band filled with the trumpet legend's former collaborators. John Beasley & Robert Irving III, important keyboard contributors to Miles in the 80s are featured with the mighty rhythm section including Miles alumni Darryl Jones and Vincent Wilburn, Jr at the bass & drums. One of the hottest trumpeters in modern jazz, Trinidad native Etienne Charles takes the hot seat. Expect heavy grooves and solo pyrotechnics covering Davis' classic albums In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson and more from this all star crew.

Snarky Puppy, Feb. 24 (Roseland Theater) - Speaking of all star crews, Snarky Puppy has taken the modern jazz world by storm as a large ensemble since emerging from the University of North Texas in 2003. More recently their individual members are starting to gain greater individual attention. Grammy wins in R&B and Contemporary Instrumental categories indicate this isn't strictly a jazz band, but with the breadth of styles they've mashed together - hip hop, swing, funk, r&b, classical and latin styles and more - Snarky Puppy simply does what they do. A collective that grows as large as 20 members, this music hits your ears like an attack of The Blob - unstoppable and all encompassing. No wonder they're attracting young fans who have no time for labels of genre. This is intellectual party music for a new generation.

Charles Tolliver, Feb. 24 (Winningstad Theatre) - Now in his mid-70s, trumpeter Charles Tolliver still packs the talent to gain him the well-deserved attention he hasn't always received. Sparking notice in the 60s with Jackie McLean, Andrew Hill and others, the self-taught Tolliver is steeped in tradition but always on the look out for opportunities to shake things up. He says, "I take the most difficult routes for improvisation....You need to get in hot water by trying something out right from the jump, get yourself out of that, and move on to the next chorus.” His large ensemble New Music, Inc. is sure to provide the heat. (Tolliver will be in conversation earlier that night at Art Bar.)

Jazz By 5, Feb. 25 (Revolution Hall) - What better way to close this year's Portland Jazz Festival than with this all-star band digging into the history of jazz, from swing to bebop, avant garde and beyond. The recently named NEA Jazz Master Joanne Brackeen is the stand-out name, a unique and flexible pianist and composer who turns 80 this Summer. The front line is shared by saxophonist Javon Jackson and trumpet star Randy Brecker. On bass is longtime Bill Evans associate Eddie Gomez, and drumming is none other than Jimmy Cobb, famous for his work on Miles Davis' Kind of Blue album. As if that wasn't enough, the shows' opener is talented young Portland drummer Domo Branch with his quintet. Don't be late to this show, or risk hearing "I saw him when..." in twenty years.

Yes, there's MUCH more jazz happening in Portland from the 15th to the 25th, including terrific performers from our own backyard like Skerik, McTuff, Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio, Greta Matassa and Dmitri Matheny. For a closer look at modern jazz acts featured on The New Cool, read this.

Enjoy Portland's 15th jazz festival this year, and don't forget to tip your server!