While the jury is out regarding Dubai Jazz Festival's celebration of its intended genre, there is no denying the event holds a special place among UAE music lovers. Returning for its staggering 16th year tonight at the Dubai Media City Amphitheatre, the festival has grown from meagre beginnings to landing some of the biggest names in pop music.
This year’s instalment is no different with three big-name headliners: UK pop veterans Duran Duran play tonight; US soul singer John Legend performs tomorrow and Latin pop king Ricky Martin on Friday. Jazz aficionados should also appreciate the support acts, including the startling vocalist China Moses and the Renegade Brass Band. Here is a detailed breakdown of each of the three festival nights.
Duran Duran will keep it vintage and fun
It is a miracle that Duran Duran are still among us. When they announced their arrival in 1981 with the storming single Planet Earth, the five-piece band became poster boys for a hedonist 1980s celebrity culture with music videos filled with more flashy cars, yachts and planes than a modern hip-hop video.
With all that notorious partying, one might have expected the band to have crashed and burned as far back as 20 years ago. Yet, all that excess often hid the group’s hard working ethos. With the exception of certain members leaving and returning over the years (guitarist Andy Taylor left permanently in 2006), Duran Duran have been an active group with a steady stream of releases and tours.
They have visited the UAE for a series of private and public shows, with their last being a jubilant performance in 2012 at the Sevens Stadium, the home of the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens.
Promoting tunes from their album All You Need is Now, that gig showed the boys in great shape, and musically as tight as ever. Frontman Simon Le Bon belted out glorious choruses with aplomb, while Nick Rhodes' work on the synth piano remained at its icy best.
This time, they return with their latest album Paper Gods. Production for that was provided by a multi-generation set of beat-makers, including Mark Ronson and Nile Rodgers, and the songs retain their flare of sky-high choruses, now couched within a more modern sound. Look out for the ecstatic disco jam Change the Sky Line,
which is the most vintage sounding of the bunch.
Warming up the stage for the Duranies is the Renegade Brass Band, a seasoned British act with a dedicated fan base in the UK and Europe. Their big band sounds have been a favourite with live crowds. The group has performed at the mammoth UK festival Glastonbury in addition to the super-cool Black Sea Jazz Festival in Georgia.
John Legend returns to Dubai with his strongest material in years
Dubai Jazz Festival and John Legend have an enduring relationship. The 39-year-old RnB singer has performed in the UAE twice on the back of the festival and has received a strong welcome each time.
Make no mistake, a live stage is the ideal place to appreciate Legend’s talents. Where some of his albums sound decidedly beige, those yearning for the hip-hop and neo-soul that are at the root of Legend’s work will be rewarded in concert.
A wildly energetic performer, Legend splits time on the piano for the gentler ballads and dancing away on the stage to the more up-tempo numbers such as Used to Love U.
Best of all, Legend's latest album, Darkness and Light, doesn't need too much stage finessing. In this colourful record, Legend was able to blend his disparate influences and as a result he sounds revitalised with live favourites including the funk jam Penthouse Floor.
But of course, the night's biggest moment will be reserved for his piano ballad and wedding favourite All of Me – don't be too surprised if a few men use the moment to pop the big question to their loved ones. Whether they say 'yes' is another matter.
Legend will be supported by China Moses. The US soul singer has a beautiful mezzo voice. In addition to her original material, Moses is also renowned for her tantalising reinterpretations of jazz and blues classics. Here's hoping she will perform her sublime takes of Dinah Washington's Resolution Blues or Nina Simone's Just Say I Love Him.
Then again, this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise considering her esteemed lineage. The 40-year-old is the daughter of none other than the legendary singer Dee Dee Bridgewater.
Ricky Martin to end the festival with Latin flare
Long before Despacito there was Ricky Martin. The Puerto-Rican singer has been at the vanguard of melding western pop music with Latin rhythms with great success. On the last night, Martin will finally bring his exuberant brand of Latin pop to the Emirates.
One can perhaps understand his absence. After dominating the western pop charts in the early 2000s, Martin shifted his career to producing Latin records to find greater success. His latest album, A Quien Quiera Escuchar, from 2015, was a big seller and was home to crossover hits Adios and Disparo al Corazón.
Despite evergreen youthful looks, his hit-laden Dubai Jazz Festival performance should lay the case down for his influence on pop music. From the giddy Livin' La Vida Loca and the bombastic She Bangs to the sporting anthem The Cup of Life, Martin's success laid the ground work for the likes of Enrique Iglesias and most recently Luis Fonsi.
Despite his history of wall to wall hits, Martin's Dubai show will also give a nod to his current work with Martin preparing to debut his new single Fiebre on Friday night. The song, which will be released to radio stations soon, has him pairing up with Puerto Rican reggaeton singers Wisin and Yandel for a track that is promised to be full of pulsating Caribbean rhythms. If it becomes the new Despacito, UAE fans can say they heard it first.
Opening the final night will be Vera Ciocca. The Colombian singer is on the rise on the account of her steady stream of gigs back home, in addition to reaching the final nine of The Voice Teens Colombia in 2016.
Dubai Jazz Festival takes place from February 21-23. Main performances begin at 8.30pm. Tickets, from Dh325, are available at www.dubaijazzfest.com