It’s a criticism the Dubai Jazz Festival faces every year – that there’s not enough ‘jazz’ on the bill.
But even the snobbiest of purists would struggle to argue with the huge raft of fabled jazzmen booked at this year’s event, which takes place between February 13 and 20.
Among them is former Miles Davis sidemen Al Foster and Steve Grossman, Art Blakey alumni Jean Toussaint and four-time Grammy winner Larry Carlton.
While they may not be household names to all, any good jazz fan will tell you these guys are the real deal – and the festival’s organisers should be commended for pulling together such an impressive line-up.
Taking place alongside the main headline gigs, the new Jazz Legends stage ensures that this year there’s much more on offer than the previously announced big name headliners Santana, Olly Murs, Jamie Cullum, Stone Temple Pilots and The Wanted.
Thumb up with our guide to ten of the best jazz players to watch.
Al Foster – Legendary American drummer Foster is best known for working on 13 Miles Davis LPs, from 1972’s influential funk-jazz masterpiece On the Corner right up until 1989’s Amandla, two years before Davis’ death. He’s also toured with legends Herbie Hancock, Sonny Rollins, and Joe Henderson, and was featured on six McCoy Tyner albums. A man who has rightly earned the title legend.
Larry Carlton – Perhaps the best-known names of all the jazz players on the bill, it’s highly likely you’ve heard Carlton’s silky guitar work – even if you haven’t realised it. As a renowned ’70s and ’80s session player, the 65-year-old has laid down licks on records by Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel, Quincy Jones, The Four Tops, Barbra Streisand – and even played on Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall. Since then he has pursued a career playing instrumental fusion – it can all get a bit smooth at times, but boy this guy can play.
Four80East – Perhaps the most forward-thinking of this year’s bookings is Canadian electro-jazz ensemble Four80East, who over six albums and 15 years have purveyed melodic, ambient grooves that push new boundaries of the genre.
Steve Grossman – He may have only been in Miles Davis’ band for little more than a year – taking the sax spot formally occupied by none other than Wayne Shorter – but as any jazz nut will tell you, this is more than enough to cement Steve Grossman’s stature in the pantheon of jazz history. Not least because in that short time he managed to play on six Davis LPs, including the trailblazing rock-jazz fusion A Tribute to Jack Johnson, three live albums including the highly influential Live-Evil, and lay down tunes which would later show up on grab-bag retrospectives Big Fun and Get Up with It (both released in 1974, a year before Davis’ infamous burnout). He later made a reputation for himself with more than 20 LPs as leader in his own right, as well as working for several years with John Coltrane’s iconic pianist Elvin Jones.
Sean Jones – Part of a new wave of traditionalist talents to emerge from the US, trumpeter Jones is best known for working on Nancy Wilson’s 2007 Grammy-winning Turned to Blue and for lengthy residencies at Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, as well as releasing five albums in his own right.
Wallace Roney – There’s one thing Wallace Roney can say that no other trumpeter in the world can claim: ‘I was taught by Miles Davis’. After a freak meeting in the mid-’80s, Davis heard the young player had no horn, gave him one of his own and mentored him personally over a period of years – something Davis had never done before or since. This paved the way for Roney to succeed Terence Blanchard in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, and later play with Davis alumni Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams on a Miles tribute project. He’s also been in bands with Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, McCoy Tyner, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Curtis Fuller, Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Dizzy Gillespie. Sure, the upshot of all this is he does sound distinctly Miles-eqsue – something he’s not escaped a fair rap for – but who would you rather sound like than the best?
Billy Childs – Gaining attention during six-years with legendary trumpeter Freddie Hubbard’s group up until 1984, Childs then struck out on his own, balancing a mainly solo piano jazz career heavily influenced by lifetime friend Chick Corea alongside classical composition. He’s won three Grammys.
Kirk Lightsey – Now aged 76, hard bop pianist is best known for featuring on a run of five notable Chet Baker LPs from 1965, and for four years touring with Dexter Gordon in the early ’80s. He’s also shared stages and dates with Pharoah Sanders, Bobby Hutcherson, Sonny Stitt and Kenny Burrell.
John Betsch – After getting an early start with tutoring from Max Roach and Archie Shepp, now aged 58, US jazz drummer Betsch has grooved round the block several times at this point of his career. Notable highlights include a stunt with Abdullah Ibrahim's ensemble between 1977 and 1979, and from 1980 to 1982 he was with Archie Shepp's band.
Jean Toussaint – A Berklee College of Music graduate and a contemporary of Wallace Roney, Toussaint played in Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers alongside Terence Blanchard in the mid-’80s before moving to London, and has performed with the likes of McCoy Tyner, Gil Evans, Kirk Lightsey, Max Roach, Horace Silver and Herbie Hancock sideman Lionel Loueke.
Also on the bill
Also featured at the 2014 festival are European jazz names including smooth Swedish pianist Jonathan Fritzén, traditional German jazz vocalist Silvia Droste, Hungarian saxophonist Tony Lakatos, Austria-based organ and guitar duo Raphael Wressing and Alex Schultz, and Tibor Elekes, a Swiss-Hungarian bassist known for ten years with the Kirk Lightsey Trio who has shared stages with Clark Terry, Woody Shaw, Archie Shepp and Al Foster.
Meanwhile weeknight blues sets will comes from Chicago blueswoman Deitra Farr, Texan blues belter Caron ‘Sugaray’ Rayford and blues singer Tad Robinson, with featured soloists including Brit saxophonist Paul ‘Shilts’ Weimar, veteran guitarist Matt Marshank, and a return visit to the festival from crowd-pleasing, flamboyant R&B honker Sax Gordon.
The Dubai Jazz Festival takes place between February 13 and 20 at Festival Park, Dubai Festival City.