10 acts to catch at the Twin Cities Jazz Fest

Atlantis Quartet get jazzy at last year's Twin Cities Jazz Fest.

Atlantis Quartet get jazzy at last year's Twin Cities Jazz Fest.

Lowertown again will be ground zero for the 2016 Twin Cities Jazz Fest.

The free annual festival presents virtually every incarnation of jazz from a deep array of national and local artists in and around Mears Park, Union Station, and Kellogg Park. Clubs throughout St. Paul will also show off the richness and diversity of the thriving local jazz scene.

Headliners include two members of New Orleans’ illustrious Marsalis jazz family, Delfeayo (Thursday) and Ellis (Friday). Trombonist Delfeayo initially worked more behind the scenes as a producer and sideman before stepping up as a leader. Steeped in classical and jazz, he plays in the J.J. Johnson tradition and consistently comes up with intriguing projects, including his Ellington/Shakespeare-inspired Sweet Thunder and the Last Southern Gentleman, his elegant standards collaboration with pianist/dad.

Speaking of the Marsalis patriarch, Ellis, the distinguished, 81-year old keyboardist and music educator, will lead a quartet on the Mears stage. He was in the forefront of modern jazz in New Orleans, taught a generation of NOLA jazz students and remains a key member of the jazz community.

At the other end of the age spectrum is 12(!)-year-old wunderkind pianist Joey Alexander, whose stunning assurance, virtuosity, and genuine feel for jazz on his debut album, the standards collection My Favorite Things, earned him two Grammy nominations and a coveted spot on the awards broadcast. He’ll play Thursday with bassist Dan Chmielinski and drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. 

A pair of ace guitarists will command the Mears Park stage Saturday.

The mostly self-taught Russell Malone is an elegant, lyrical stylist with a subtle sense of swing, hints of blues and gospel, and a particular flair for melody, which he celebrates on his latest album, All About Melody. With pianist Rick Germanson, bassist Luke Sellick, and drummer Willie Jones III, all of whom will join him here, Malone nails the calypso sway of Sonny Rollins’ “Nice Lady,” turns Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman” into an amorous whisper, then whips out whining leads on Bill Lee’s wicked jazz-funk workout “Biskit.” 

Acclaimed as a guitarist and singer, John Pizzarelli favors a classic jazz style with fluid runs and canny, persistent swing. He’s often concentrated on jazz standards and takes that classic approach to Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles songbook on his latest, Midnight McCartney. Pizzarelli turns “Silly Love Songs” into a samba, “Junk” into a late-night reverie, and, with vocalist/wife Jessica Molasky, “Maybe I’m Amazed” into an intimate, sparkling declaration of love.

Finally, stretching the definition of jazz, is Michael Franti & Spearhead (Saturday), whose bristly R&B, reggae, hip-hop, soul, and rock hybrids have always been riddled with socio-political commentary and singalong choruses. Franti’s brand-new Soulrocker features significant infusions of electronics into his usual potent mix, fueling the reggae party anthem “My Favorite Wine is Tequila,” heated rouser “Summertime Is In Our Hands,” and hazy mysticism of “We Are All Earthlings.” 

Rounding out the festival lineup is a treasure chest of local jazz artists scattered among the clubs and free outdoor stages. A few to keep an especial eye out for: trad pianist Butch Thompson, Afro-Cuban drummer Francisco Mela, guitarist Zacc Harris’ Trio, and Jazz Women All-Stars with Patty Peterson, Mary Louise Knutson, Joan Griffith, Sheila Earley. 

2016 Twin Cities Jazz Festival

With: Dozens of national and local jazz artists; see complete lineup here.

When: Thu.-Sat., June 23-25.

Where: Throughout downtown St. Paul; see venues here.

Tickets: Free; more info here.