Growth, Change Apparent at PDX Festival

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Mark DeClive-Lowe performs Feb. 19 at The Star Theater in Portland as part of the Biamp PDX Jazz Festival.

(Photo: Mark Sheldon)

The Biamp PDX Jazz Festival has undergone a number of changes during the past 15 years: The retirement of longtime artistic director Bill Royston, and the close call that almost ended the annual event when a key financial sponsor pulled their support. Yet something about the most recent evolution of the festival—the departure of artistic director Don Lucoff and the welcoming of his replacement, Nicholas Salas-Harris—felt significant.

In part, the festival lost the contacts and influence Lucoff built through DL Media, the publicity firm he founded in the late ’80s. But his absence provided an opportunity, too. The lineup for this year’s festival felt more reflective of the changing sound of modern jazz, a testament to Salas-Harris’ keen understanding that, as he put it, for a number of years, PDX Jazz “was just not getting the job done. The programming didn’t reflect what was happening in the world we live in.”

That perception was put to rest immediately during the opening night concert for the 2020 edition of the festival: a Feb. 19 double-bill at The Star Theater pairing trumpeter Jaimie Branch and keyboardist Mark de Clive-Lowe, both younger players striving to deconstruct and rearrange music history.

de Clive-Lowe has taken that idea quite literally for his on-the-fly remixes of the Blue Note catalog. But in Portland, that came out through performances of material from his Heritage albums. Both releases use Japanese folk songs and traditional melodies as a foundation for de Clive-Lowe and his collaborators to tie in modern technology and production techniques. As assured as the performance was in Portland, the music worked much better in its studio guise, as the momentum of the set kept getting stalled by long explanations of each piece and a slow burn.

By contrast, Branch and her ensemble (including bassist Jason Ajemian and drummer Chad Taylor) worked through the material from her most recent album, Fly Or Die II, at a comfortable clip, letting compositions bleed together in an hour-long groove suite punctuated by her horn and politically charged vocalizing.

The rest of the festival swung between the old guard and the young lions, sometimes on the same bill. When Archie Shepp ambled slowly to the Newmark Theatre stage on Feb. 22, offering a warm but shaky hour of blues and jazz standards, it was after a set by Portland’s Blue Cranes, who imbue their post-bop sound with rock dynamics and a playful edge. And Kenny Barron’s lyrical, elegant solo piano performance sounded almost rigid compared to the wild attack of John Medeski, whose deconstruction of “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” at The Alberta Rose Theatre on Feb. 26 was a festival highlight.

If there was any act in the festival lineup that served as a bridge between the legends and the next generation, it was the Branford Marsalis Quartet at The Newmark Theatre on Feb. 23. Fresh off a run of shows in Seattle, the ensemble was airtight, splashing through extended jams that made great use of dramatic shifts in volume and intensity, and displayed a physicality that often was missing from many of the other scheduled acts. Pianist Joey Calderazzo, especially, looked like he was coming out of his skin during solos, cocking his shoulders to and fro and, at certain points, standing up to bear down on the keys.

The true testament of Salas-Harris’ vision for the PDX festival could be seen simply in how young the audiences skewed for many of the performances. Kassa Overall’s Feb. 28 set in basement venue The Jack London Revue was packed with college-age folks held in sway by a freeform set that slid between Afrofuturist jazz and psychedelic hip-hop. The same demographic took over a ballroom at the Portland Art Museum the following evening to worship at the altar of Thundercat, there to let his fleet-fingered bass work and genre-free sounds drum up excitement for his forthcoming studio album, It Is What It Is.

Salas-Harris seemed to be testing the waters with Portland jazz fans in the same way that he did with Soul’d Out, the citywide festival that recently folded after a decade-long run. That event centered on r&b, soul and hip-hop, but worked its way to the fringes, booking the likes of Bonnie Raitt and Tortoise.

Flickers of that mindset came alive through appearances by contemporary classical legend Terry Riley, who played a transcendental set of freeform keyboard and guitar duets Feb. 23 at the Jack London with his son Gyan, and Salami Rose Joe Louis, a young Los Angeles musician connected to Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder crew. While the latter could work her way into what might comfortably be called jazz, she preferred the lucid palette of dream-pop and psychedelia, augmented by a tight rhythm section and a reed player who added texture and weirdness with his EWI. No matter their vast age differences, those two artists alone represent the future of the festival, and the strongest indicator that the event is ready to grow in some unexpected and very welcome directions. DB



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