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Tri-C JazzFest returns with an eclectic lineup

The founding mission of Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland in 1980 was the promotion and preservation of jazz through education and performance opportunities for students and concertgoers alike. Thirty years later, JazzFest continues on that path, offering free clinics as well as concerts by international stars, up0and-comers and local jazz luminaries during its 10-day run. It's an agenda that favors mass appeal and tributes over the showcasing of current trends.

Still, jazz aficionados probably won't quibble much over the legends slated to appear. Drummer Roy Haynes, pianist Dave Brubeck and guitarist George Benson continue to excite listeners with their inventiveness (well into their 80s for Haynes and Brubeck). The fest also features some dynamic pairings (most notably blues guitarist Buddy Guy and jazz guitarist John Scofield), ethnic and cultural outcroppings, musical blends and the world premiere of an "inter-media" piece by vibraphonist Cecilia Smith.

The Shaw High School Marching Band will kick off the festivities at 5 p.m. Thursday, with a parade through Tower City leading out onto Public Square. Benson will pay tribute to legendary singer-pianist Nat "King" Cole with a performance at 8 p.m. Friday, at PlayhouseSquare's Allen Theatre. A self-professed "entertainer" known for his '70s and '80s pop hits, Benson can also pick out tasty post-bop licks and has the milky, R&B-tinged voice to do Cole justice.

Saturday begins with a free 1 p.m. show by bassist Marion Hayden at the Mt. Zion Congregational Church, followed by local pianist Joe Hunter's Jazz for Kids program at 2 p.m. at the Children's Museum of Cleveland. That evening features perhaps the highlight of the festival: Guy and Scofield's concert at 8 p.m. at the Allen. This is like Godzilla vs. Mothra — not to be missed. But if Latin jazz is more your flavor, Eddie Palmieri y la Perfecta II will perform at 8 that evening with Grupo Fuego at the Tri-C Metro Campus Auditorium.

The Greg L. Reese Performing Arts Center in the East Cleveland Public Library ­— one of Cleveland's hidden gems — will host four free shows. At 4 p.m. Sunday, 22-year-old pianist and Juilliard student Jonathan Batiste and his quintet bang out angular modern jazz in the style of McCoy Tyner, whose music will be honored at the Reese at 4 p.m. On May 3, by TCJF SoundWorks, featuring Cleveland saxophonist Howie Smith and bassist Glenn Holmes, and Warren native and rising trumpet star Sean Jones. Soft-lounge singer-songwriter Sachal Vasandani appears at 8 p.m. Sunday, while local sax legend Ernie Krivda performs at 7:30 p.m. Monday, with a tribute to Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins that's called "Tenor Sax Giants of the 1960s."

The world premiere of Cecilia Smith's "Crossing Bridges" takes place PlayhouseSquare's Ohio Theatre at 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 29. The piece incorporates cinema and spoken word with live jazz. Smith will be joined by trumpeters Cecil Bridgewater, Sean Jones and Dominick Farinacci, plus Tri-C students and faculty.

But the fest saves some of its biggest names for the final weekend, when it presents two concerts at the Allen Theatre. A twin bill at 8 p.m. Friday, May 1, features Dave Brubeck, perhaps the most popular yet challenging jazz pianist ever, with his quartet, and vocalist Kurt Elling, whose material showcases his mastery of language and vocalese. Smooth-jazz fans get their moment at 8 Saturday, May 2, when saxophonist Dave Koz shares the stage with special guests, pianist Joe Sample and vocalist Randy Crawford. For those looking for something more adventurous that night, Cleveland drummer/percussionist Bill Ransom highlights perhaps the hardest-hitting set of the fest, leading the seventh installment of "Jazz Meets Hip Hop" at 10 p.m. at the Grog Shop.

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