Rock Steady

Despite the flood, the Jazz & Blues Festival reigns supreme

Omaha's 10th annual Riverfront Jazz and Blues Festival is one thing the Missouri River flooding isn't stopping. Despite Mother Nature's recent attack on the Midwest, the show, as they say, must go on. The two-day event has been moved to the legendary Orpheum Theater, a more than suitable replacement. Organizer Tim Clark is determined to make this year another success.

“In terms of challenges, as we are all aware, the Missouri River flooding posed a huge one. This is the tenth year we’ve done the festival and people are used to it being outside. We looked at a few other places so we could keep it outdoors, but economically speaking, we decided it was best to move it inside,” Clark says. “We are still going to bring the same energy and excitement we have in previous years. Although we obviously encountered a major obstacle this year, we ask our fans not to be fair-weathered.”

And why should they be? Boasting acts such as The Whispers, Rick Braun, Jonathan Butler and Maysa, the well-rounded festival spans a good chunk of the musical spectrum. From R&B and urban jazz to funk and world music, every artist has something unique to offer the equally-as-diverse audience.

“We get input from the previous years and input from fans, a select committee and narrow it down to a top 25 list. Then we start the process of checking their availability and affordability until we land on a decision,” Clark explains. “We try to top the line-up every year. This time around, it’s a mixture of old and new, established and upcoming talent. We have a very diverse selection of some of the best musicians in the world. The energy on stage with the talent of artists we have will be unbelievable.”

Originating in the early 1900's, jazz is relatively young. yet has seen a multitude of manifestations over the decades and spawned myriad subgenres such as bebop, swing, Dixieland, acid jazz and Latin jazz fusions.

“This musical form, as so many others, is still evolving. There seems to be a lot of music these days that is very hard to pigeonhole and very little musical purity,“ Clark says. “Everyone has their own definition of jazz, and that's probably healthy. For me jazz is a feeling, it's a beat to the experience of life, it's electrifying, and it's music that comes from the soul.”

Rick Braun, a festival headliner, is prepared to showcase his take on jazz which holds a more contemporary, urban feel. Specializing in the jazz trumpet, Braun started doing solo albums in 1992. His collaboration with saxman Richard Elliot, 2007's "RnR," was No. 1 on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz charts immediately upon its release. In turn, it launched the genre's biggest tour in 2008. However, Braun isn't a one-trick pony. He has written songs for Tom Petty, War and Tina Turner. He is truly a world-class trumpeter, composer and producer.

On the other side of the spectrum, R&B sensations The Whispers are appearing. The Los Angeles quartet, including twin brothers Wallace and Walter Scott, have been churning out consistent hits since the 1960s. It was 1987’s “Rock Steady” that delivered their first Top 10 success on the Top 100 and garnered them the most recognition.

South African guitarist Jonathan Butler adds some more eclecticism to the line-up with his Grammy Award-nominated material. Growing up in Cape Town during apartheid, Butler set his experiences to music. A great majority of his catalog reflects on how segregation and poverty influenced his youth.

Clark and his team assembled six other acts to perform, including Gerald Albright, Peter White, Tizer, Eric Darrius and Omahan Karrin Allyson. Allyson is a three-time Grammy Award-nominated jazz vocalist who is proficient in French, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian. Clark can barely contain his enthusiasm as he rattles off the names of some performers.

“I am excited to see our local jazz musician, par excellence, Karrin Allyson. I think she will bring a traditional element to the program in addition to some more modern sounds,” he says. “Of course, The Whispers are legendary along with Jonathan Butler and that makes for two very special evenings.”

Whatever flavor of jazz entices your palate, this year’s Riverfront Jazz and Blues Festival will satiate. It may not be on the river, but, hey, at least it’s a force that couldn’t be stopped.

“Yes, we would love to be outside on the riverfront, but the river is not cooperating. Festival fans don't have to worry about rain or the heat this year. Everyone will still be able to see their friends, but it will be more comfortable. And the sound? The sound will be the best the festival has ever offered with the beautiful acoustics in The Orpheum. You do not want to miss this!” 

posted at 11:36 am
on Thursday, July 07th, 2011

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