James Blood Ulmer
James Blood Ulmer

Jazz music in Portland has been taking some serious lumps lately. At the end of 2016, Jimmy Mak’s, the city’s hub for local and touring jazz acts for 20 years, closed its doors after owner Jim Makarounis suffered a recurrence of the laryngeal cancer he was diagnosed with in 2011, halting the club’s relocation plans. (Makarounis sadly passed away on January 2.) And until recently, there was some question as to whether Solae’s Lounge, the bar on NE Alberta that has offered up showcases for local combos like the Christopher Brown Quartet, would able to continue offering live music after some curfew debates with the Office of Neighborhood Involvement.

For a few days this month, we can put all of those concerns on the back burner and simply bask in the glow of this glorious American art form during this year’s PDX Jazz Festival. Now in its 14th year, the annual event offers up some of the only chances to catch some truly talented players and performers from around the world. And the 2017 edition has mighty talent on the roster this time around, with room for modern space-funk, icy European vibes, and tributes to jazz legends Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. If you’ve still yet to make your selections for what shows you want to hit up, here are our can’t-miss picks for the PDX Jazz Festival.

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Maria Schneider Orchestra—For some unearthly reason, Maria Schneider's long-running jazz orchestra has never played in our city before. That alone would be excuse enough to attend their performance at the Newmark Theatre. But the real reason to witness this show is to get swept away by the depth and grandeur of Schneider's compositions and the all-star lineup that plays them. This version of the Orchestra arrives on the heels of the Grammy-winning LP The Thompson Fields, a magisterial work that features some of Schneider's most angular and accessible compositions, and features top notch players like trombonist Ryan Keberle, saxophonist Scott Robinson, and her secret weapon, pianist Frank Kimbrough.
Fri Feb 17, Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway

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Kneebody—This Los Angeles-based quintet is one of the few groups that took the lessons taught by the giants of fusion jazz (Miles Davis, Weather Report) seriously, applying them with politically leaning, exploratory fervor to their own compositions. Their forthcoming album Anti-Hero is a perfect summation of their intent as a unit, with deeply funky playing and fired-up performances driven by drummer Nate Wood and keyboardist Adam Benjamin's driving attack.
Sat Feb 18, Winningstad Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway

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The Heath Brothers—There aren't many members of the old guard that helped set the foundation for modern jazz in the '50s and '60s left. So when any of them are able to make it out to Portland, respect must be paid. That means music fans should take notice of the upcoming concert by brothers Jimmy and Albert "Tootie" Heath. These gents have decades of music history under their collective belts, playing alongside greats like John Coltrane, Milt Jackson, and Nina Simone. At their advanced ages (Albert is 81 while his brother Jimmy is 90 years old), their playing has understandably lost a little bit of muscle tone, but the pair are still hitting their marks and staying true to their bop roots.
Sat Feb 18, Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway

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James "Blood" Ulmer—This New York mainstay was a late addition to the festival lineup after John Abercrombie was forced to back out of his scheduled appearance due to illness. But that doesn't make Ulmer's presence any less exciting. The eccentric and masterful guitarist has been veering in and out of the jazz universe since the late '50s, applying a slyly funky tone to albums by John Patton and Arthur Blythe. But over the past 30 years or so, Ulmer's playing has aimed to use a blues foundation to leap into more free jazz and fusion galaxies. His journey in the outer reaches continues, propelled by his calmly smooth vocals and the Afro-futurist bent to his lyrics.
Sun Feb 19, Winningstad Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway

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Peter Evans—While many of the artists on the docket for the PDX Jazz Festival occasionally push into avant garde territory, Peter Evans is the only one that lives there year-round. The New York-based trumpeter has been a member of some of the most daring ensembles around (Mostly Other People Do the Killing and Pulverize the Sound, among them) and has collaborated with the best modern players in the world, including his recent work with Evan Parker and drummer Weasel Walter. His solo performances and improvisations tend to go even farther out as Evans enjoys the rough scratch of discordance and the use of non-musical noises brought to live by his breath and lips. For this intimate appearance, he'll be joined by a cadre of Portlanders that includes guitarists Ryan Miller and Mike Gamble and saxophonist Noah Bernstein for a night of freeform wonder.
Tue Feb 21, Beacon Sound, 3626 N Mississippi

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Craig Taborn Quartet—One of the busiest men working in jazz today, pianist Craig Taborn has, at the age of 46, amassed an impressive number of credits, including over 80 appearances on albums by other artists and a mere seven released under his own name and featuring mostly his own compositions. But like all the great players, he has an instantly recognizable sound: a spacious, splashy way with the keyboard that bridges the mindsets of Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor. For this Portland date, Taborn will be joined by the trio that helped him record his latest album Daylight Ghosts that includes erstwhile the Bad Plus drummer Dave King and Northwest-bred saxophonist Chris Speed.
Thurs Feb 23, The Old Church, 1422 SW 11th