DC Jazz Festival Reaches New Peak with Sanders, Carrington


Pharoah Sanders performs June 10 at City Winery during the DC Jazz Festival in Washington, D.C.

(Photo: Fritz Photographic)

Since its founding in 2005, the DC Jazz Festival has pursued an expansive vision: not just in terms of musical styles, but of the city’s geography. This year, in its 14th iteration, the festival advanced that vision, in both dimensions, perhaps further than ever before.

The 2018 DCJF had two primary outposts, each in a far-flung, previously much overlooked corner of the District. Its flagship venue throughout its 11-day span, June 8-17, was City Winery, a branch of the New York-based franchise, located in Northeast D.C.’s long-dormant—and now gentrifying—industrial Ivy City neighborhood.

Most of its headline acts performed there—among them The Bad Plus, Patricia Barber, Ben Williams, Raul Midon and a sublime June 10 set by the legendary saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. Backed by pianist William Henderson, bassist Herman Burney Jr., drummer Johnathan Blake and Ghanaian percussionist Okyerema Asante, 77-year-old Sanders showed that age has robbed him of neither richness nor power. In his opening piece, Sanders counterbalanced the swing- and gospel-charged undulations of his band with long, serene tones, played with his slightly coarse tenor. He was mellow, pacific—and still, even as he tamed his accompanists’ motions, somehow thoroughly intense. When the troupe shifted into 3/4 for John Coltrane’s “Ole,” Sanders doubled his tenor with a vocal performance. It was somewhere in the rarely heard middle ground between scat singing and ranting gibberish: violently rhythmic nonsense syllables, which he then emulated on his axe (as did Henderson, then Blake and Asante). It was a remarkable rechanneling of the fervor that Sanders perfected while apprenticing with Coltrane 50 years ago.

The festival’s second stage, as it were, was the newly redeveloped Wharf DC, in the District’s southwest quadrant. In past years, the festival’s presence in Southwest was almost entirely limited to putting its imprimatur on the already thriving Jazz Night at Westminster Presbyterian Church. This time, it all but took over the upscale boardwalk environment for its closing weekend, with music offered on two piers: on an understated alley bandstand and inside the Hyatt Place Washington DC (where bassist Kris Funn, best known for his work with Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, won the DCJF’s band competition, the DC JazzPrix), and at the mammoth new venue Anthem, a three-story, 6,000-seat venue that hosted the festival’s keynote address. It was a triple bill, featuring jazz-funk saxophone icon Maceo Parker, the Robert Glasper-led supergroup R+R=NOW and jazz vocalist/Hamilton star Leslie Odom Jr.

Formidable though Parker and Odom were, the supergroup won the evening. Its sound might be best described as meta-fusion: a combination of hip-hop and r&b with Miles-ian jazz-rock. With Glasper joined by aTunde Adjuah on trumpet; Terrace Martin on alto saxophone, synthesizer and vocoder; Taylor McFerrin on synthesizer and beatbox; Derrick Hodge on bass; and Justin Tyson on drums, the band began with an electro-funk take on Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly” and extended into a long, shapeshifting groove. It ultimately ended in polyrhythms, evoking both pan-African traditions and, not unrelatedly, the M-Base movement. It was well suited to Glasper’s explanation of the band name.

“It’s an equation,” he said, “meaning that if you reflect and respond to what’s happening, you’ll have no choice but to be in ... now.”

The festival’s triumph in Southwest included not just the cavernous theaters, but the smaller, fringier spaces. A 225-seat basement room, Union Stage, featured a coruscating set by avant-garde trumpeter Jaimie Branch. Accompanied by a version of the ensemble that appeared on her 2017 Fly Or Die (International Anthem) recording—bassist Jason Ajemian, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and drummers Chad Taylor and Stoli L. Sozzleberg—Branch covered a remarkable sonic range. Here, she was playing loose phrases that coalesced into longer and longer lines, never quite crystallizing into a melody; there, in a duet with the kookier sounds of Sozzleberg’s palette that was the most cohesive and melodically logic moment of the night. At one point, Branch simply played a long, circular-breathed drone over thrumming ostinati by Lonberg-Holm and Ajemian, ultimately moving the trumpeter to put her horn aside and grunting aggressively into the microphone.

The festival’s standby locations also got superlative musical workouts. At the historic Sixth & I synagogue in Chinatown, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington laid out an arresting tribute to Geri Allen with a band that included pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Ben Williams, alto saxophonist Tia Fuller and vocalist Charenée Wade. Opening with two pieces from Feed The Fire, Allen’s collaboration with vocalist Betty Carter, the quintet evoked both Carter (with Wade adopting her punchy scat on “Feed The Fire”) and Allen (with Carrington, Williams and Evans raising the specter of her elastic approach to rhythm). A subsequent performance of Allen’s “Dolphy’s Dance” demonstrated something this writer hadn’t quite grasped before: Evans’ heavy pianistic debt to Allen. Evans was a bit trepidatious as he began his solo on her challenging harmonic structure. As he settled in, though, he was a tidal wave, bringing in clanging chords whose percussive power almost concealed his remarkable voice. Williams, in the meantime, was the one player at ease with the harmonic equations from the get-go, an example of his sterling virtuosity.

This handful of acts was a tiny sampling of the full festival, which featured about 170 performances. And while each wasn’t quite on par with these spectacles, the sheer volume was sufficient for the DCJF to reach a magnificent new peak in its history. That augurs well for success, both creative and commercial, in the future. DB

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