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Guide to Jazz Fest: Picks and nitpicks

For starters, catch the headliners at Mears Park. Hit the Amsterdam, Studio Z and the Black Dog.

TC Jazz Fest posterJazz happens in the Twin Cities every night of the year in places large and small. But never is it more concentrated, more accessible, and, let’s say it, more festive than on a weekend in June. After a surprisingly successful start in 1999 and a near-death experience in 2008, the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, formerly the Hot Summer Jazz Festival, returns for its 14th straight year beginning tonight in St. Paul’s Mears Park and venues throughout the city – clubs, restaurants, bars and cafes.

In all, the festival offers 100 performances on three outdoor stages and in 15 different venues, plus five master classes at McNally Smith College of Music. You can view two versions of the schedule at the festival website. The click-through web version takes you through the festival day-by-day. A downloadable PDF lists all of the events happening at each venue.

You’re online now, so you can visit the website. Go ahead. I’ll wait. (Pause.)

Feeling a bit confused? Overwhelmed? Too many choices, too many places, too many names you’ve never heard?

Deep breath. First, Jazz Fest is free. (Although I’ve heard some clubs will ask a small cover charge, the headliners in Mears Park are free.) So you can wander from place to place, stay when you hear music you like, and leave when you don’t in search of something else. Think of this event as a big jazz buffet, or as a giant jazz playlist on your iPod. Especially because all but the headliners are local/area artists, consider it a way to sample the richness of our jazz community.

When I sat down to write this piece, I thought I might do the usual picks list – My Almighty Guide to the best of the fest. But I’ve seen most of the artists on this year’s schedule, some of them several times, and there’s no one I wouldn’t see again. So here’s what I suggest.

Catch the headliners in Mears Park. These are artists for whom promoters pay the big bucks. Find out why. Friday at 6 p.m., Francisco Mela & Cuban Safari. Drummer Mela is a member of top-tier saxophonist Joe Lovano’s Us Five (a group that includes Esperanza Spalding, when she’s available). Friday at 8:30 p.m.: Delfeayo Marsalis. Delfeayo is the trombone-playing Marsalis brother. 

Delfeayo MarsalisCourtesy of Delfeayo MarsalisDelfeayo Marsalis headlines the Jazz Festival on Friday night.

Saturday at 6 p.m.: Italian jazz/classical violinist Luca Ciarla, whose musical arsenal includes a loop machine, melodica, ocarina, and sound effects. Saturday at 8:30 p.m.: The Bad Plus with guest Joshua Redman. The Bad Plus — Ethan Iverson on piano, Reid Anderson on bass, Dave King on drums — play whatever they want, from originals to rock/pop covers to Stravinsky. This will be only their fourth time in concert with tenor saxophonist Redman, so the collaboration is still new. In jazz, this doesn’t mean a rehearsal where nobody knows what’s going on. It’s more of a risk-taking, high-wire session where everyone is on fire and having fun.

Besides the headliners, what else might you do? Visit the Amsterdam (6 West 6th St.), which is booked solid with jazz starting at 5 p.m. every night and ending with a jam session by the artists of Jazz Central, a collective/community of musicians who perform, rehearse, and hang out in northeast Minneapolis. Stop by Studio Z on the second floor of the Northwestern Building (275 E. Fourth St.) in Lowertown, a block away from Mears Park as the crow flies (two blocks if you walk). Here and at the Black Dog (a block from the Northwestern Building) are where you’ll find some of the festival’s most adventurous music. 

When things wind down on the main stage, check out the Artists’ Quarter (408 Saint Peter St., about seven blocks from Mears Park in the other direction), the official festival after party site. The superb pianist, Jazz Fest stalwart, and NPR host (“Piano Jazz: Rising Stars“) Jon Weber will hold the bench all weekend. On Thursday night at 9, he’ll play for singer Connie Evingson; on Friday for Maud Hixson. If you want to go behind the scenes and learn something about how jazz happens, stop by one of the master classes at McNally Smith (19 Exchange St. E.). Mela gives a drum clinic at 2:30 on Friday; on Saturday at 4:30, The Bad Plus and Redman take the floor.

Can’t go to the jazz festival? Jazz radio station KBEM (88.5 fm) is broadcasting it live on Friday night starting at 7 p.m. and Saturday starting at 4.

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And now for some nitpicks. No jazz festival is perfect, but ours would benefit from a few strategic tweaks. First, it’s too spread out. You can download a free MetroTransit pass, but who wants to spend precious weekend time riding buses around St. Paul? Second, it’s unclear which clubs and restaurants will have cover charges this weekend, and how much. That information should be included in the descriptions of the events. Third, if you’re a planner, both of the available schedules will drive you crazy. What’s needed is a schedule that takes us hour-by-hour through the festival so we don’t have to read through the entire list of venues to find out what’s happening, for example, at 7 p.m. on Saturday. Or maybe (dreaming big here) an app. Northern Spark had an app this year. We could also use a map. Perhaps an app with a map, as Dr. Seuss might say.

Fourth, this year’s Twin Cities Jazz Festival happens the same weekend as the Iowa City Jazz Festival. A lot of Minnesotans make the drive down to Iowa City each year. This year’s headliners include bassist Tod Sickafoose and his Tiny Resistors, the Heath Brothers Quartet (aka J-A-Z-Z L-E-G-E-N-D-S), and a Paul Motian tribute band with drummer Matt Wilson. Argh! We should not have to choose. Please, no more scheduling conflicts.

Fifth and final nitpick: The jazz festival is a cross-section of local/area musicians, but there are significant gaps. Where are the musicians of the Jazz Implosion, now at Icehouse and formerly of the Clown Lounge? Where’s Fat Kid Wednesdays? Where are the people who play in James Buckley’s jazz series at the Nomad, or the Tuesday Series for Experimental Music at Madame of the Arts, or Tuesdays at Café Maude? Where are Milo Fine and the musicians of the Improvised Music at Homewood Studios series? Why isn’t Bryan Nichols leading a gig? Where’s Jeremy Walker? Good grief, where’s Anthony Cox? And, in a completely different vein, where are the big bands? The trad bands? Where’s Butch Thompson? Next year, let’s make the umbrella bigger. We have the artists. Let’s bring them in.

All that being said, Jazz Fest will be a good time. A great time. Try to get out and enjoy it.