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Clearwater Jazz Holiday organizers say this year's event will be better than ever.

The 28th annual Clearwater Jazz Holiday will start off with a bang and leave jazz lovers hankering for more, organizers predicted Wednesday.

Jazz legend George Benson will headline opening day and Natalie Cole will close out the free, four-day event at Coachman Park in Clearwater Oct. 18-21.

"It's one of the best lineups we've ever had," said Patrick Sheppard, president of the Clearwater Jazz Holiday Foundation.

The major headliners used to be stacked up during the weekend. But over the past two years, organizers said they've tried to spread the big acts around to draw more people throughout the festival.

"It gives a balance to the festival. It gives you a big headliner every night and gives our fans and our audience the chance to come out every night," said Donna Yarbrough, a member of the music selection committee.

The lineup should appeal to a wide array of jazz fans, with acts ranging from smooth to Latin to Big Band, organizers said.

"They did a nice job with getting people with name appeal and jazz credibility spread out over the four days," said Bob Seymour, jazz director at WUSF-FM 89.7.

Several local acts will perform, including Ray & Friends, Jazz Surge with Chuck Owen, the Lynne Arriale Trio and the Ruth Eckerd Hall Clearwater Jazz Holiday Jazz Youth Band. "We feel it's very important to feature our local talent because we have so much of it here," Yarbrough said.

Robert Cunningham, programmer of WMNF-FM 88.5's Sunday Evening Jazz Clinic, said the Jazz Holiday is moving in the right direction.

"That is an outstanding lineup right there. That's quality," Cunningham said. "It's not so hard and traditional. It's not the smooth thing we've been bombarded with."

Cunningham praised several of the performers, singling out Arturo Sandoval.

"He's a consummate musician," Cunningham said. "He's known for his trumpet. And he's just dynamite on the piano."

Jazz Holiday marketing consultant Gary Hallas said the lineup should please the crowds all four nights.

"It will leave them dancing in the aisles. It will leave them wanting more," he said. "That just carries you forward to get ready for 2008."


Jazz Holiday lineup

Thursday, Oct. 18

6 p.m. Air Force Band Falconaires

8 p.m. George Benson

Friday, Oct. 19

5 p.m. Ray & Friends

6:45 p.m. Jazz Surge with Chuck Owen

8:45 p.m. Norman Brown, featuring Peabo Bryson, Jeff Lorber and Marion Meadows.

Saturday, Oct. 20

3:45 p.m. Michael Ross Quartet

5:30 p.m. Brian Bromberg's Downright Upright Band, featuring Randy Brecker, Mitchel Forman, Gary Meek and Dave Weckl

7:15 p.m. Arturo Sandoval

9:15 p.m. Medeski Martin and Wood

10:45 p.m. Fireworks

Sunday, Oct. 21

1:45 p.m. Ruth Eckerd Hall Clearwater Jazz Holiday Jazz Youth Band

3 p.m. Hendrik Meurkens Samba Jazz Quartet

4:45 p.m. Lynne Arriale Trio, featuring Lynn Arriale on piano, Thomson Kneeland on bass and Steve Davis on drums

6:30 p.m. Joe Gransden

8:30 p.m. Natalie Cole