Ivory towers: 3 keys to the Twin Cities Jazz Festival

  • Article by: BRITT ROBSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 27, 2013 - 2:25 PM

AIM Jazz musician Cyrus Chestnut

If the programmers are wise, the budget is sufficient, and the weather and mood are right, a jazz festival can become a magical series of events that take on a distinctive personality — something that’s generally happened since the Twin Cities Jazz Festival moved to St. Paul’s Mears Park in 2010.

This weekend’s festival will be defined by the extraordinary slate of pianists on tap. Here’s three of them, all former prodigies who have expanded their command of the instrument.

 

Cyrus Chestnut

8:30 p.m. Saturday with his trio on the Mears Park Main Stage

Bio: Began playing piano at 5 and entered the Peabody Institute four years later. But his real schooling came from performing with such mentors as vocalist Betty Carter and trumpeter Terence Blanchard. Now 50, he has more than 20 albums as a leader to his credit.

Signature sound: An in-demand sideman for his impeccable timing and stylistic versatility, Chestnut is at his best prancing through hard bop and post-bop mainstream grooves that he soulfully imbues with the influence of his gospel upbringing.

Desert island disc: Nearly his entire catalogue consists of high quality outings, but “The Darkness Before the Dawn” (1995) offers the best primer for TCJF attendees because it is a trio record that ranges from John Coltrane to J.S. Bach to standards such as “My Funny Valentine.”

 

Kenny Werner

8:30 p.m. Fri. with his trio on the Mears Park Main Stage

Bio: By 11, he had recorded with an orchestra and appeared on TV, and as a teenager attended the prestigious Manhattan School of Music. His robust resume includes numerous solo, duo and small- and large-ensemble recordings, studio dates with rugged iconoclasts like Charles Mingus and Archie Shepp, a Broadway gig with Betty Buckley and associations with contemporary stars like Joe Lovano and Dave Holland.

Signature sound: Werner’s contemplative quietude is often compared to Bill Evans, but there is a rich spiritual quality to his best work — his ballads often contain the grace and emotional weight of a benediction. He’s not afraid to flirt with “new age” serenity, or take the emotionally bold step of turning a commission for a 37-piece orchestra into a five-movement work commemorating his daughter, who had recently died in a car accident (“No Beginning No End,” 2009).

Desert island disc: “Balloons” (2011) is a sublime collection of live performances, including four idiosyncratic Werner originals that linger between 11 and 18 minutes apiece.

 

Jon Weber

9 p.m. Fri.-Sat., Artists’ Quarter, with various guests

Bio: According to his website, by age 6 he had “internalized 2,000 standards from his Grandma’s piano rolls.” Self taught and precocious, as a teenager he led a quintet playing his originals while opening for national jazz acts. More recently, he hosted the radio show “Piano Jazz Rising Stars” on NPR.

Signature sound: Weber is a physically commanding presence at the piano, with a snazzy facility best showcased on stride and boogie woogie tunes. That flair, plus his ability to play almost any tune in any genre, has made him an ideal ringmaster for the AQ’s late-night jam sessions during the fest.

Desert island disc: In 2004, he threw a wrench in his reputation as a stride-piano showman by releasing “Simple Complex,” a collection of challenging arrangements and knotty time signatures, with a star-studded lineup that includes Roy Hargrove, Gary Burton and Eric Alexander.

  • related content

  • Jazz pianist Jon Weber

  • Jazz musician Kenny Werner

  • TWIN CITIES JAZZ FESTIVAL

    When/where: 4-10 p.m. Fri., 1-10 p.m. Sat., Mears Park, at Sibley and E. 5th Streets, St. Paul. Free.

    Also: There’s free music Sat. in downtown St. Paul near the Union Depot and Farmers Market. Plus, various downtown bars are featuring jazz sets all week long.

    More info: twincitiesjazz festival.com

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