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The 2019 Twin Cities Jazz Fest starts today

Look at all those people, just listening to jazz in St. Paul.

Look at all those people, just listening to jazz in St. Paul. Courtesy of the Twin Cities Jazz Fest

The 21st annual Twin Cities Jazz Festival will settle into St. Paul for an extended June weekend Thursday through Saturday, again centered in Lowertown but radiating throughout the capital city.

Mears Park will host the main stage and several satellites while area clubs will also be busy. Performances at Mears will be free as usual, a bargain considering the quality of talent. Free workshops with musicians and jazz films will round out the festival.

Two items of particular interest this year are that the Union Station youth stage has been renamed in honor of the late Larry Englund, the music journalist and DJ who had been very involved in festival planning. Also, this festival will serve as the swan song for Vieux Carré, the St. Paul jazz club that for many years was a beacon for the local jazz community as the venerable Artists’ Quarter.

Saturday’s main stage headliner will be jazz vocalist, composer, and arranger Nnenna Freelon, whose soaring voice wings through an eclectic array of standards, gospel, soul, and pop, often in unpredictable arrangements running from reggae to funk. She’s flirted with Burt Bacharach, Harold Arlen, and Nat King Cole, as well as done in-depth portraits of Billie Holiday and Stevie Wonder. It’s been a while since she put out an album, but meanwhile she’s helped create and appeared in a multidisciplinary project called The Clothesline Muse, which is about cultural values and the stories that link generations.

Preceding Freelon at fest central will be the James Carter Organ Trio. Carter is a genuine saxophone colossus, commanding a quartet of the instruments plus flute. He’s more eclectic even than Freelon, in the course of his three-decade career rambling from standards to the avant-garde via classical, the Caribbean, and beyond. Among innumerable projects, Carter has maintained his Organ Trio, which ventures into gospel, blues, and soul, for a couple of decades, treasuring it, he’s said, for its power and flexibility. By adding a bass player and indulging in pedals and electronic effects, Carter transforms the trio into the Elektrik Outlet, whose material may sneak into the set. Carter hasn’t put out a new recording in some time, but tentatively due is Django Unchained, which promises to urbanize gypsy jazz.

Earlier in the day, the stage will feature Israeli drummer, pianist, and producer Yogev Shetrit, who in recent years has focused on original compositions with his trio. His music is a heady fusion of bop and contemporary jazz, spiced by flavors of the Middle East, Andalusia, and Moroccan Gnawa. Shetrit is also a founding member of the longstanding Jerusalem groove band Coolooloosh, which combines some of the same influences with a bristling veneer of funk and hip-hop.

Minneapolis native José James will headline the main stage Friday. The New York-based singer-songwriter has a remarkably supple baritone voice and he explores the nexus between jazz, R&B, blues, soul, and hip-hop. He’s dabbled in Al Green sensuousness and Bobby Bland blues, plus paid tribute to Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Billie Holiday, and Bill Withers. The latter, the subject of last fall’s Lean On Me, brilliantly captures Withers’ essence while subtly adding James’ own dimensions, particularly nailing “Ain’t No Sunshine,” a funky “Use Me,” and the sultry, effervescent “Kissing My Love.” The Withers material will be the focus of this performance.

Up before James will be saxophonist/singer Grace Kelly. An erstwhile teenage horn prodigy, Kelly, now in her late 20s, has morphed considerably beyond her youthful infatuation with straight-ahead jazz. Her current approach integrates electronic, funk, and hip-hop rhythms, covering everyone from Drake to the Stones. Her performances are high-energy, choreographed, and often electrifying.

The festival kicks off Thursday with a major dose of tropical flair from Cuba. Pianist Jorge Luis Pacheco and his trio will headline the main stage. Pacheco is considered one of the key youthful forces in Cuban jazz. Also a singer, composer, arranger, and percussionist, he plays traditional and contemporary Cuban jazz as well as fusing pan-Latin music and classical. But what really stands out is his dazzling virtuosity; he epitomizes the adjective “fiery” with ferocious fusillades of notes and dramatic gestures while sustaining the music’s integrity. Also up Thursday will be Cuban singer Mayito Rivera performing with the local Charanga Tropical, itself soaked in Cuban sounds. For two decades Rivera, a dynamic and charismatic vocalist, was lead singer for the venerable, innovative Cuban band Los Van Van.

Also noteworthy among visiting musicians is the return of New Orleans multi-instrumentalist Aurora Nealand and pianist Tom McDermott, who wowed audiences at last year’s festival. Nealand sings and plays saxophone, clarinet, accordion, and banjo while immersing herself in seemingly dozens of diverse projects. She plays traditional, contemporary, and hot club jazz, klezmer, rockabilly, punk, and experimental music in numerous configurations, while also involving herself in local theater and other arts projects. Nominally a trad pianist, McDermott is quite versatile, a student of New Orleans’ piano canon in all its myriad permutations, and way beyond. His performances with Nealand, here on TPT’s Jazz Vocal Showcase Stage Saturday, stray from all manner of New Orleansiana to Brazil, blues, Beethoven, and deep into the Caribbean.

Besides the visiting headliners, clubs and other venues around Lowertown and throughout St. Paul will be teeming with representatives of the rich and diverse Twin Cities jazz scene, ranging from swing to Afrobeat to free jazz and way beyond. The complete schedule is here.