The landmark 20th annual Twin Cities Jazz Festival will once again settle into St. Paul’s verdant Mears Park and scattered venues around the capital city today through Saturday. As always, at the core of the fest will be free performances by acclaimed jazz artists on several stages around Lowertown, plus a city-wide showcase of the diverse musicians fueling the burgeoning local jazz scene.
Leading her nine-piece Memphis Soulphony, multiple-Grammy winning vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater will headline the keystone Saturday night show on Mears’ main stage. The band’s name is tied to her latest album, last fall’s Memphis . . .Yes, I’m Ready, a dazzling tribute to the distinctive soul and R&B of the city where she was born in 1950. Mustering every ounce of her sterling jazz chops, Bridgewater slinks, purrs, and growls while immersing herself in such Memphis nuggets as Pops Staples’ “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)” and Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stop The Rain,” even throwing in a steamy version of Elvis’ “Don’t Be Cruel.”
Holding the main stage spotlight Friday night will be veteran tenor saxophone ace Houston Person, a highly versatile player perhaps best known for his work at the confluence of jazz, blues, gospel and soul, a precursor to acid jazz. Person’s new Rain or Shine is an exquisitely tasty and sultry excursion into all that. His rich tenor practically drops blues and soul as he squeezes emotions out of such classic ballads as the iconic Mercer-Arlen nugget “Come Rain or Come Shine” and the one-time Quincy Jones vehicle “Everything Must Change,” and he also funks up guitarist Rodney Jones’ “Soupbone.” Here at the festival, Person will be accompanied by roots-aware pianist Emmet Cohen and his trio.
Preceding Person will be alto saxophonist Tia Fuller, a sleek, post-bop player who has been a member of Beyoncé’s touring band, worked with the likes of Terri Lynne Carrington and Esperanza Spalding, and lead her own bands. On this May’s Carrington-produced Diamond Cut, Fuller, collaborating with jazz heavyweights Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland, slips through a fine, ballad-leaning collection of melodically rich, rhythmically playful originals, plus a few soulful interpretations of standards, including Cole Porter’s “I Love You.”
There’s always a New Orleans connection at the TC and this year’s is in the multiple guises of rapid up-and-comers Nayo Jones and Aurora Nealand, plus piano vet Tom McDermott.
Chicago native Nayo Jones has a sensational, wide-ranging siren of a voice. She tended towards neo-soul and R&B but lately has evolved into embracing the intricate nuances of a full-fledged jazz diva. On her 2016 album, Live at the Kerr Center, she breaks out high-spirited versions of such standards as “St. James Infirmary” and “Summertime.” Since moving to New Orleans, she has often sung with trumpeter Kermit Ruffins’ band.
Aurora Nealand is a saxophonist, clarinetist, accordionist, banjoist, and vocalist with a degree in composition and Parisian theatrical training. She’s involved in a dizzying array of projects in the Crescent City, including traditional New Orleans jazz with the Royal Roses, rockabilly with Rory Danger and the Danger Dangers and experimental industrial stuff. Here Nealand will team up with Tom McDermott, whose keyboard escapades often run the gamut of traditional styles. One of the Nealand-McDermott collaboration’s highlights is a stunning NOLA interpretation of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I could Cry.”
Nealand and McDermott will play at the indoor stage at the TPT Lowertown TPT Street Space, which will feature vocal jazz in addition to showing rare and historic jazz films.
This rundown just scratches the surface of the dozens of artists playing everything from swing to trad to bop to gypsy to free jazz on stages from the banks of the Mississippi to the shores of Como Lake to Highland. Check out the full schedule here.