It seems a little weird to say, but jazz is having a moment right now.
Later this month, Ryan Gosling might win an Oscar for mansplaining Thelonious Monk to Emma Stone. Meanwhile, in the real La La Land, artists such as Kendrick Lamar have helped turn the likes of Kamasi Washington and Thundercat—young musicians whose jazz roots grow into hip-hop, electronica and beyond—into crossover stars, with a fan base that has only a glancing awareness of Coltrane and Miles.
After years of being told jazz is on life support, there is now a whole new generation beginning to dip into its rich pool of history. And if you live in Portland, the most convenient way for a newbie to sample the past, present and wigged-out future of the idiom is the annual PDX Jazz Festival. Stretched across 11 days, there's a lot to take in. To help you out, we've broken down the highlights into three categories, depending on whether you're a traditionalist, an adventurer or just a total noob.
FOR THE JAZZ NEWBIE
Maria Schneider Orchestra
The phrase "big band" suggests "grandparent music," but Maria Schneider's jazz orchestra incorporates today's global and contemporary jazz sensibility while drawing on the classic legacy of arrangers like Gil Evans. BRETT CAMPBELL. Newmark Theatre. 7 pm Friday, Feb. 17. $45-$75.
Amina Claudine Myers
Pianist and singer Myers has worked in off-Broadway theater and created original music deeply influenced by blues and gospel. The Arkansas-born pianist maintains that accessible sensibility in covering the music of the late Marion Brown, best known for his stint with Chicago's 1960s avant-garde Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians but who also had a more approachable, even romantic side that Myers beautifully brings out. BC. Classic Pianos. 5 pm Sunday, Feb. 19. $20-$25.
Ezra Weiss and the Monday Night Big Band
Contemporary small-group originals are blown out to bigger proportions this evening, part of noted local arranger and pianist Ezra Weiss' longtime dream to bring large-group takes on his original music to Portland. Weiss goes all-out, utilizing a slew of the Rose City's most accomplished performers to fill out each melody line, rhythm and harmony. PARKER HALL. Lola's Room at Crystal Ballroom. 7:30 pm Monday, Feb 20. $20.
Ralph Towner, Anja Lechner and François Couturier
Classical and world music fans looking to explore jazz might start with this double bill featuring stalwarts of the European ECM record label. Trained in classical guitar at the University of Oregon, Towner embraced classical and world influences in his famous fusion band Oregon, and his new solo guitar album beautifully incorporates those influences in a stripped-down setting. German cellist Lechner and French pianist Couturier bring a similar spare, atmospheric sound to their classically influenced Eurojazz. BC. The Old Church. 7 pm Monday, Feb. 20. $30-$35.
Dubbed "The Godfather of Neo-Soul," Roy Ayers is one of the most influential musicians of his time, and across far more genres than jazz. Pioneering the strong, infectious back beat and binary rhythmic groove we call jazz funk, Ayers continues to play unparalleled jazz for the dance floor. ISABEL ZACHARIAS. Revolution Hall. 7:30 pm Thursday, Feb. 23. $29-$59.
Aaron Parks Trio
Among the most intimate concerts you're likely to see at this year's festival is that of rising star pianist Aaron Parks and his bass-drums trio, whose soulful blend of modern jazz and classic swing will be particularly enticing at this small Northeast Portland club. (PH) Fremont Theater. 7:30 pm Friday, Feb. 24. $25-$30. All ages.
White-haired guitar virtuoso John Scofield shows his softer side tonight, performing selections from his recent album, Country for Old Men, which highlights classic country tunes made famous by everyone from Hank Williams to Shania Twain. PH. Revolution Hall. 7:30 pm Friday, Feb. 24. $29-$59. All ages.
FOR THE JAZZ TRADITIONALIST
Branford Marsalis Quartet with Kurt Elling
Legendary singer Kurt Elling and saxophonist Branford Marsalis meld the smooth vocal stylings of the Rat Pack with jagged modern harmonies, satisfying both Sinatra die-hards and 21st-century modernists. PH. Newmark Theatre. 7:30 pm Thursday, Feb. 16. Sold out. All ages.
The Cookers are a supergroup that consists of seven jazz heroes, most of whom became known for their contributions to the heady music of the late '60s and early '70s. Still as dynamic and creative as ever, each fantastic post-bop original they perform serves as evidence of the members' 1,000 collective recordings. PH. Winningstad Theatre. 10 pm Saturday, Feb. 18. $35-$45. All ages.
The Heath Brothers
Two of the most iconic elder statesmen in the jazz world today, 90-year-old National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master saxophonist Jimmy Heath and his 81-year-old brother, Tootie—a legendary Coltrane-backing drummer—still perform some of the most soulful interpretations of standards you'll ever hear. PH. Newmark Theatre. 7 pm Saturday, Feb. 18. $29-$59. All ages.
Alan Jones Sextet's Drum Battle
In honor of what would've been seminal jazz drummer Buddy Rich's 100th birthday, Portland native Alan Jones has programmed a tribute that also functions as a celebration of great Portland drummers: Jones' own sextet, plus Portland jazz granddaddy Mel Brown, Brown's son Chris, and Carlton Jackson, a favorite KMHD DJ and touted drummer in multiple genres. PH. Fremont Theater. 7 and 9:30 pm Tuesday, Feb. 21. $20-$25. All ages.
Mel Brown Big Band and John Faddis with Jimmy Mak's All Stars
Drummer Mel Brown—the Godfather of Portland Jazz—debuts a big band comprising his many longtime Jimmy Mak's bandmates, performing the music of Dizzie Gillespie. Famed New York trumpeter Jon Faddis plays the part of Diz, as the band rings in what would have been his 100th year. PH. Revolution Hall. 7:30 pm Wednesday, Feb. 22. $19-$49. All ages.
Insiders have long esteemed Bill Mays as a composer, bandleader and arranger who's worked with legends like Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and even Frank Zappa. His solo piano recital, drawn from his brilliant new release, Front Row Seat, also reveals an inventive, almost orchestral interpreter of jazz classics. BC. Classic Pianos. 7 pm Thursday, Feb. 23. $20-$25.
FOR THE JAZZ ADVENTURER
"Those Brainfeeder troublemakers are at it again!" say the straight-jazz hard-liners, noses in the air. "If only they didn't sound so good!" Like it or not, artists like bassist extraordinaire Thundercat are the future of jazz—bendy, big-hearted, weird and crazy talented. IZ. Wonder Ballroom. 9 pm Thursday, Feb. 16. $18 advance, $22 day of show. All ages.
Unlike most instrumental ensembles with a "this, that and the other" approach to experimental music, Eastman-educated five-piece Kneebody amalgamates jazz, funk, rock and electric influences compellingly, making sounds you've never heard before but can't stop listening to. IZ. Winningstad Theatre. 3 pm Saturday, Feb. 18. $30-$35. All ages.
Ralph Peterson's TriAngular, featuring the Curtis Brothers
Son of a New Jersey police chief and boxer, drummer and bandleader Ralph Peterson generates a tough, adventurous sound fueled by his health struggles, martial arts training, the youthful energy of the piano and bass sibling team that he recently added to his rebooted trio, and, lately, American racial injustice. It adds up to stylish, energetic jazz fired by black music and black struggle. BC. Winningstad Theatre. 9:30 pm Friday, Feb. 17. $30-$35.
James "Blood" Ulmer
An ideal gateway drug for the jazz-curious rock fan, James "Blood" Ulmer's music looks just as much to the future as it does to the past, drawing on timeless blues progressions and rabid Hendrix-like soloing. And somehow, in between all that, he's always reflecting astutely on politics, society and being black in America. IZ. Winningstad Theatre. 3 pm Sunday, Feb. 19. $30-$40. All ages.
Yellowjackets & Mike Stern
Fusion pioneers collide as the Yellowjackets pair up with electric guitarist Mike Stern, whose tasteful rock-influenced sound hasn't crossed paths with the band in over a decade. A special evening of funky grooves and synth tones, this is where you're most likely to run into that long-haired KMHD listener from the record store aisle. PH. Revolution Hall, 7:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 19. $19-$49.
SEE IT: The PDX Jazz Festival is at multiple venues Feb. 16-26. See pdxjazz.com for a complete schedule and ticket information.