THE PDX JAZZ FESTIVAL has endured a lot in its 13-year existence. Portland's annual celebration of jazz from around the globe died after its 2008 run when it lost many of its major sponsors, but it was resurrected the following year thanks to the deep pockets of Alaska Airlines. Co-founder and Artistic Director Bill Royston retired two years later, and the festival lost a bit of its adventurous spirit. An event of this kind comes with perpetual ups and downs; some shows get packed to the rafters, and others have plenty of empty seats.
The good news is that the 2016 edition of this battered and bruised beast of a festival is as strong as it's ever been. The overarching theme of this 11-day affair is "Coltrane at 90," celebrating the late John Coltrane, the saxophone player and composer whose curious nature and spiritual yearnings resulted in a peerless body of work. The lineup that Executive Artistic Director Don Lucoff and his crew have put together is a wonderful reflection and expansion of that leitmotif. So if you're looking to check out some of the performances happening over the next week-and-a-half, here are our can't-miss picks for this year's PDX Jazz Festival.
Sonny Fortune Quartet—A saxophone player of remarkable poise and power, Sonny Fortune earned international renown in the jazz world beginning in the late '60s for his time performing with McCoy Tyner and as a member of Mongo Santamaría's band. He also dared to step into the vortex of Miles Davis' '70s funk-fusion experiments, holding his own on albums like Big Fun and Agharta. The 76-year-old has settled into a groove in recent years with a winsome bop sound that's all his own, evoking the tone and spirit of Coltrane without attempting to replicate it. Thurs Feb 18, Jimmy Mak's, 221 NW 10th
Charles Lloyd Quartet—Well into his sixth decade of performing and recording, Charles Lloyd remains a spry and inquisitive artist. His last few albums have found the 77-year-old saxophonist and flautist exploring traditional Greek melodies, standards from the jazz canon, adaptations of pop songs, and original compositions that shimmer on the horizon like a heat mirage. Lloyd's creative spirit blazes even hotter in a live setting. And he'll have a band—including drummer Eric Harland and the superb pianist Gerald Clayton—to help fan the flames. Fri Feb 19, Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway
Aaron Goldberg—Pianist Aaron Goldberg is one of the most in-demand session players in New York, which leaves him bouncing between his own trio and work with Wynton Marsalis and Kurt Rosenwinkel. His performance at the PDX Jazz Festival is a rare chance to catch him on his own. Goldberg's solo sets are still quite masterful, as he dances between Latin influences and avant-garde interests on top of a post-bop foundation. Sun Feb 21, Classic Pianos, 3003 SE Milwaukie
Moongriffin—The ever-evolving ensemble Moongriffin's 2015 release, Glimpse of Future, draws as much influence from the jazz world as it does from post-rock groups like Tortoise and the third eye-engaging productions of Flying Lotus. For every low-key groove that Elliot Ross & Co. lock into, they paint a psychedelic mandala. For their PDX Jazz Festival performance, Moongriffin will include former Shy Girls sax player Noah Bernstein, drummer Chris Johnedis, bassist Andrew Jones, and the terrifically unbound guitarist Mike Gamble. Thurs Feb 25, Altabira at the Eastlund, 1021 NE Grand, #600
Universal Consciousness—This tribute to Alice Coltrane, the pianist/harpist who expanded on and surpassed the work of her husband, was already shaping up to be a great evening. There will be an ensemble led by Alice and John's son Ravi that boasts free jazz legends like drummer Andrew Cyrille and bassist Reggie Workman, and some help from fresh-faced harpist Brandee Younger. But it was announced that tonight's tribute will also include an appearance by Pharoah Sanders, the tenor sax maestro whose lean, understated tone has the power to move mountains. Prepare to have your chakras rattled and jumbled like a tantric game of Yahtzee. Sat Feb 27, Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway
Brandee Younger—The night after resurrecting the spirit of Alice Coltrane, harpist Brandee Younger will do a solo performance that should be just as metaphysically fulfilling. The New York-based player will have plenty of room to meld her interest in popular music (her lissome tones have been utilized by Lauryn Hill and Drake, among others) with her classical training and a wide-awake political consciousness that informs recordings like her 2012 track "He Has a Name (Awareness)" that pays tribute to Trayvon Martin. Sun Feb 28, Classic Pianos, 3003 SE Milwaukie