In its first two years, the story of the Center City Jazz Festival tended to focus on its precarious financial situation.
Less than two months before the inaugural event in 2012, trombonist and founder Ernest Stuart still had his fingers crossed that his Kickstarter campaign would make his vision for the festival a reality. Last year, late funding came through that allowed a repeat performance and pianist Orrin Evans' Peco-sponsored headlining concert at UArts' Arts Bank Theater.
Then, on the eve of that second festival, the event received a Knight Arts Challenge matching grant that Stuart was able to supplement with money from the Philadelphia Jazz Project, giving him the luxury of knowing, with a full year to spare, that there would be a third festival. That let him devote more of his time to scheduling a powerhouse lineup for this year's outing.
"This lineup is my 'finally' moment," Stuart says. "This is what I've been trying to go after for the last couple of years. I finally wasn't scrambling around at the last minute looking for money, so this year I was able to plan things out and nail down some really great musicians."
This year's roster includes such impressive names as the inventive saxophonist Steve Coleman and his band Five Elements; the trio Thumbscrew, with guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara; Philly-born drummer Justin Faulkner, fresh from his latest tour with saxophonist Branford Marsalis; and rising-star saxophonists Stacy Dillard and Tivon Pennicott.
They'll join a host of local favorites such as vocalists Joanna Pascale and Rhenda Fearrington; Trio Up, with Rick Tate, Nimrod Speaks, and Ronnie Burrage; guitarist Mike Kennedy; and an ensemble representing the Kimmel Center's Creative Music Program.
Stuart sought to "streamline" this year's day-long festival, which runs from 1 to 7 p.m. at four close-together Center City venues: Fergie's Pub, Chris' Jazz Café, Milkboy Philadelphia, and TIME Restaurant. TIME also will host a late-night jam session led by Stuart at 10 p.m.
Stuart has reduced the multiple ticket options to a single all-access pass ($15 in advance, $20 at the door) and mixed the headliners' sets into the rest of the shows, which begin at 15-minute intervals to allow audiences to make the rounds and catch portions of as many sets as they'd like. "The response has been great," he says. "Tickets have been selling faster than in any other year."
The music itself ranges from straight-ahead jazz artists such as Pascale and saxophonist Tim Warfield Jr. to the avant-garde-leaning Thumbscrew and sax player Coleman, whose latest album, Functional Arrhythmias, draws inspiration from the rhythms of biological functions.
A veteran of jazz festivals around the world, Coleman recognizes that such a varied lineup often throws casual listeners into the deep end.
"Somebody who listens to Lady Gaga all day is going to have a very different experience listening to my music than somebody who's been following me for years," Coleman says. "It depends on the listener, their sophistication level, where they come from, what their culture is. There are a lot of people who generally like something that they call jazz, which is a big, broad category, and I'm well aware that I'm not in the mainstream."
"Ernest brings a nice variety of musicians who you may not get to see in Philadelphia every day," says Justin Faulkner, who played in three different bands at the first festival and this year will lead an electric trio featuring bassist Mike Boone and trumpeter John Swana. "You can walk down the street and hear a familiar song, walk in and be surprised by who's playing it. That doesn't happen at every festival."
Pascale will make her festival debut this year, previewing songs from her forthcoming CD. Stuart was a student of hers at Temple University. "He was always a really driven, ambitious guy, and I'm so proud of him for picking up the reins and really running with this thing," she says. "I think it's important to celebrate the talent that is cultivated here, and Ernest has done a really good job of putting together an eclectic program that represents that."
Center City Jazz Festival
1 to 7 p.m. Saturday at Fergie's Pub, Chris' Jazz Café, Milkboy Philadelphia, and TIME Restaurant.
Tickets: $15-$20. Information: www.ccjazzfest.com