Hillfest Aims to Bolster the D.C. Jazz Scene

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Although Stefon Harris was the headliner for Washington, D.C.’s second annual Hillfest on Oct. 6, it was clear that the Saturday afternoon festival at Garfield Park was a platform for the District’s fertile jazz scene. Even Harris’ revised Blackout ensemble featured D.C.-native Marc Cary on keyboards.

Still in its infancy, Hillfest is the brainchild of the Capitol Hill Jazz Foundation, an arts advocacy organization that aims to create performance opportunities for D.C.-based jazz artists through jam sessions, educational programs and other entrepreneurial gambits. In addition to music performances, Hillfest encompasses a weeklong music conference that included panel discussions touching on various topics affecting the city’s jazz scene.

Two years ago, when renowned jazz club Bohemian Caverns closed amid the city’s gentrification, cultural displacement and rising rents, the District’s jazz scene took a mighty blow that suggested it was in decline. But one thing was certain: Bohemian Caverns’ closure didn’t stunt the insistent development of homegrown talent. And out of the ashes rose other venues, providing platforms for live performances.

“Through the advocacy that we’ve been doing, we been having a jazz jam session every night of the week,” said Aaron Myers, the Capitol Hill Jazz Foundation’s board chairman and co-producer of the festival. “We have venues opening that are building stages and are calling jazz artists first. On a Saturday night, you can find 10 or 11 places to either play or hear jazz from all different hours. The closing of Bohemian Caverns shook everybody up, but it had everyone saying, ‘You can take that one spot, but you can’t take away the jazz scene.’”

At Garfield Park, pianist and singer Amy Bormet led her trio through an enticing set of standards and originals, starting off with a fetching reading of Miles Davis’ “Nardis” and adding a winning makeover of “Stella By Starlight.” Although, she often plays acoustic piano, her considerable improvisations and melodic acumen shone through the electric keyboard at Hillfest, as drummer Terence Arnett and electric bassist Tarus Mateen spurred her forward. When Bormet sings, she emits a piercing, twangy sound reminiscent of a 1930s jazz singer. But she brings a contemporary bite to her originals, as with the deliciously snarky mid-tempo “Maybe She Knows,” the melancholy “Goodbye Waltz” and the groove-laden “Closer.”

Akua Allrich was another commanding singer at the festival. Fronting her mighty Tribe ensemble and often belting life-affirming lyrics while playing the cajón, Allrich channeled Afrocentric energy, recalling legends like Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba and Abbey Lincoln. She electrified the audience with soulful renditions of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” “Jolinkomo” and the self-empowering “Fire.”

Other standout performances included sets from keyboardist Hope Udobi, and D.C-native and New York-based bassist Corcoran Holt. Udobi fronted a superb quartet that highlighted his sleek originals from a forthcoming disc. His originals—“Spiral,” “In The Wild” and “Warrior Children”—burst with hip-hop laden modern jazz rhythms, as he unraveled crisscrossing improvisations across Charles Wilson’s kinetic drumming and Mikel Comb’s undulating basslines. Baltimore-based trumpeter Theljon Allen sometimes upstaged Udobi’s virtuosic passages with his incendiary, Freddie Hubbard-esque solos.

Holt’s band came with searing trumpet firepower, too, by way of Donvonte McCoy, who shared the frontline with trombonist Andrae Murchison. Holt concentrated on music from his latest album, The Mecca. Before he approached the upright bass, he commenced his set with a declarative djembe solo, then nestled into the hypnotic “Raven’s Wing,” a modal excursion that shifted into a Latin-tinged groove, animated by keyboardist Benito Gonzalez’s coruscating melody. The tune established Holt’s pace, as he anchored and propelled the ensemble in tow with drummer McClenty Hunter, especially on the driving “14th Street Bounce.” Throughout the performance, the group placed high premiums on catchy melodies, danceable rhythms and forceful improvisations—all of which best coalesced on the go-go fueled “Rainy Days,” a fitting musical shout-out to Chocolate City. DB



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July 2019
Anat Cohen
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