The Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival made its annual appearance at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center at the University of Missouri – St. Louis on the weekend of April 20.

The festival is a yearly summit for seasoned jazz educators and aspiring performers, masterminded by UMSL’s own Director of Jazz Studies Jim Widner. Widner juxtaposes some of the modern jazz community’s most celebrated figures against the promising student musicians of the UMSL Jazz Ensemble.

This year’s convention featured the headlining performances of the Poncho Sanchez Latin Band on Friday and the Christian McBride Big Band on Saturday. Both are renowned figures in their respective niches within the jazz community.

Both performances commenced with sets from the UMSL Jazz Ensemble, whose skilled performers were more than capable of keeping pace with the massive talents they preceded. The group tackled pieces from some of the jazz community’s most iconic composers, including Count Basie’s “Who, Me?” and Charles Mingus’s “Moanin’.”

Lauren Sevian, a celebrated collaborator and formidable talent on the baritone sax, joined the ensemble for the Friday performance. Her valve-fluttering solos added an impressive degree of spectacle to the ensemble’s characteristically exceptional performance.

Following the ensemble’s more traditional bop and big band compositions was the Friday evening headliner, Poncho Sanchez, whose group performed a rhythmically nimble brew of salsa and Latin jazz. Sanchez, a truly electrifying performer, dared the Touhill’s traditionally geriatric audience to resist the infectious pulse of his virtuoso conga. Accompanied by an equally fleet septet of alto sax, bass, brass, samba piano, and additional percussion, the group achieved the perfect balance between accessibility and technicality that characterizes the finest jazz performances.

In keeping with the educational spirit of the St. Louis Jazz Festival, Sanchez’s set also functioned as a brief history lesson on the origins of Latin jazz. In particular, Sanchez and his band paid tribute to the historic pairing of jazz icon Dizzy Gillespie and conga drummer extraordinaire Chano Pozo by performing a series of the duo’s most celebrated compositions. The Gillespie-Pozo collaboration is widely regarded as the impetus for the fusion of American jazz composition and Latin rhythmic sensibilities. Also, the Sanchez Band’s inspired performance of the salsa standard “Oye Como Va,” which was played in honor of Tito Puente’s 89thbirthday, served as a fitting homage to the late king of salsa.

To lend more clout to the commemoration of Latin jazz’s most celebrated duo, the Sanchez Band brought in renowned performer, trumpeter and popular film score composer Terrence Blanchard to play Dizzy to Sanchez’s Pozo. Blanchard’s work as a composer includes the scores to Spike Lee films such as “Malcolm X” and “Inside Man.” In honor of the occasion, he added an appreciable Latin flavor to his usual hard bop styling.  Acting as a more traditional counterpoint to the Sanchez Band’s rubber-limbed percussion, Blanchard’s hearty contributions to the Gillespie-Pozo compositions and ballads were eagerly embraced by the Touhill audience.

The powerhouse performance featuring two of modern jazz’s most admired figures was a fitting kickoff for the annual showcase’s ninth season. Call it another success for Widner’s and Jazz St. Louis’s tireless efforts to maintain the city’s reputation as a jazz Mecca.

by David Von Nordheim, staff writer for The Current