Sprawling Variety at DC Jazz Festival

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The DC Jazz Festival might have its weak points, but musical variety is not one of them.

The festival’s annual 10-day span, June 7-16, also maintained a commitment to geographical variety, featuring performances in every part of the nation’s capital—from the Washington glamour of the Kennedy Center to the far-flung, homier landmark, The Big Chair. It’s an effective formula for putting the city’s inherent breadth on display. But that breadth wasn’t the one that mattered most.

Any night of the festival offered disparate, but fully formed, perspectives on jazz. On opening night, a straightahead bebop quintet led by bassist Kent Miller (at Busboys & Poets restaurant in the Anacostia neighborhood) preceded an intense set of progressive clarinet playing by Anat Cohen (at The Hamilton, a downtown concert venue). On June 10, one could hear driving, slightly quirky hard bop from tenor saxophonist Jordon Dixon at the University of the District of Columbia, then cross town and catch saxophonist Brad Linde’s BIG OL’ Ensemble playing the intricate, classically influenced compositions of Australian visionary Elliott Hughes.

At the Kennedy Center, a single concert—a themed concert, no less—managed to showcase a remarkable diversity of styles. June 9’s “Celebrating Randy Weston” was a tribute to the deceased pianist, composer and NEA Jazz Master, whose 2010 autobiography, African Rhythms, was co-written with DCJF artistic director Willard Jenkins. The concert’s core unit comprised three of Weston’s band members—saxophonist T.K. Blue, bassist Alex Blake, percussionist Neil Clarke—all mixing up the pianist’s trademark pan-African blend of flavors. The variety came in the form of the rotating piano seat, with three players of celebrated, idiosyncratic styles.

First came Rodney Kendrick, whose dense chordal attack also employed the irregular figures and spacing of Thelonious Monk. Next, Vijay Iyer brought his acclaimed percussive touch to bear, in this case with a deeper-than-usual reservoir of blues feeling. Marc Cary’s soulful, often delicate lyricism rounded out the pianists, a trio of stylists who couldn’t be more different—though they each proved a fit for Weston’s work, as they showed with a concert-closing round robin on the late bandleader’s “Hi-Fly.”

The eclectic nature of the festival wasn’t quite so concentrated elsewhere; it came close, however, with a program called present::futures. Produced by CapitalBop, the D.C.-based jazz advocacy group and presenter founded by New York Times staffer and DownBeat contributor Giovanni Russonello, present::futures was a miniature festival of its own. It spread across two stages at The Sandlot—a small events space in the shadow of D.C. United’s Audi Field—featuring six local and national acts.

Experimenters such as Organix Trio, led by Baltimore multireedist Jamal Moore, and solo guitarist Miles Okazaki, performing his renditions of Thelonious Monk tunes, presented stunning slates of programming. Okazaki was a particular highlight, brilliantly and hilariously echoing the sound of a car alarm in his improvisation on Monk’s “Work.” On the other hand, adventurers such as drummer Justin Brown’s electronica-infused Nyeusi and genre-busting singer Georgia Anne Muldrow (who used Nyeusi as her backing band) threw up splashy murals of modern jazz, soul and hip-hop that reverberated around the barren parking lots of the soccer stadium.

City Winery, the D.C. branch of the restaurant/music chain that was one of the festival’s hubs last year, scaled back its involvement in 2019 with only two concerts, the SPAGA trio on June 12 and trumpeter Etienne Charles and Creole Soul on June 13. SPAGA was one of the festival’s pleasant surprises. A piano trio led by Aron Magner—keyboardist of the electronica jam band Disco Biscuits—the group ran through a series of highly melodic pieces that often mimicked the Biscuits’ glitches and loops. As it did, though, the music whipped itself into a frenzy of rhythm, and it was into that maelstrom that Magner deposited his swirling, lustrous piano solos.

City Winery’s withdrawal left The Wharf—the Southwest D.C. entertainment district—the festival’s undisputed headquarters. Its cavernous concert venue, The Anthem, featured headline acts Snarky Puppy, José James and Jon Batiste in a resounding atmosphere, perhaps too large for this music. But the sheer grandeur was hard to argue with. The smaller Pearl Street Warehouse played host to the DC JazzPrix, the festival’s annual working-band competition, as North Carolina’s Ernest Turner Trio took the title.

As ever, though, the fest’s calling card is its closing free marathon of music, held on The Wharf’s District Pier and Transit Pier on June 15-16. Its big names included singer Michael Franks, tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman and pianist Joey Alexander. Its spotlight-stealing performance, however, was an electrifying set by D.C.-based pianist Allyn Johnson and his Sonic Sanctuary quartet with a darkened, dramatic version of “Summertime” as its centerpiece. It was yet another outlet for the festival’s breathtaking variety of jazz. DB




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December 2019
Hiromi
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