DC Jazz Fest Triumphs

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The crowds were as welcome a sight as the diverse lineup of artists who appeared on the 19th annual D.C. Jazz Festival’s multiple stages.

(Photo: Jati Lindsay)

It was weeks off its usual schedule, cut back to a single weekend, yet the D.C. Jazz Festival, which held its 19th edition over Labor Day weekend at Washington, D.C.’s the Wharf, could not have been more welcome — or more packed with great music.

With the festival’s city-spanning stages dark last year (a scaled-back 2020 edition of the festival consisted of a week’s worth of webcast concerts, some live and some from the DCJF archive), anticipation reached a fevered pitch. A capital that most Labor Days is emptied by congressional recess was alive and kicking this year; the Wharf’s boardwalks and two pier stages were crowded to an extent that few places anywhere have been in a long time.

The organizers, too — led by Executive Director Sunny Sumter and Artistic Director Willard Jenkins — were clearly as excited for the restart as everyone else. As evidence, they put on a marathon of open-air concerts that was not only constant for eight hours a day, but astoundingly diverse, like a banquet spread that offers as many flavors as possible.

Local flavor, to continue the metaphor, served as the aperitif. The much beloved local quintet CarrKeys began the proceedings on Saturday afternoon at the Transit Pier stage with percolating hard-bop. Tenor saxophonist Paul Carr and alto saxophonist Marshall Keys dueled through standards as well as Carr’s original “Side Yard Tracks.” Somehow it was the perfect setup for something very different on the District Pier’s main stage: the Maria Schneider Orchestra, playing its first concert since the COVID lockdown.

That meant their first time performing music from last year’s Pulitzer Prize finalist Data Lords. It was a resplendent set, with all of the complex parts working smoothly and fine solo work from guitarist Ben Monder (“Don’t Be Evil”), baritone saxophonist Scott Robinson (“Sputnik”) and trumpeter Mike Rodriguez (“Data Lords”).

Pianist and frequent DCJF headliner Orrin Evans outdid himself with the delicacy of his Brazilian project, Tereno Comum, highlighted by work from guitarist Leandro Pellegrino and vocalist Alexia Bomtempo. Saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin, too, upped the ante on her past performances with tunes from her CD Pursuance: The Coltranes, which found her at a new peak of confidence.

It was Saturday evening’s finale, however — the appropriately titled “Grand Night for Strings” — that was the most spectacular. The delightfully overstuffed program included a core trio led by veteran bassist Michael Bowie (Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln); violinists Regina Carter and Jenny Scheinman, each performing a short solo set as well as playing together; and the String Queens, a D.C. trio that applies classically based string arrangements to African American popular music styles.

Alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins was among the rising stars who started off Sunday afternoon’s open-air concerts — but he also put in an appearance at the indoor DCJazzPrix, the festival’s annual competition for working bands (held at the Wharf’s Union Stage). The finals were an exercise in diversity — both of aesthetic and geography. Wilkins appeared in the quintet led by Bahamian trumpeter Giveton Gelin, a high-octane post-bop unit. Gelin competed against the r&b- and Afrobeat-laced music of Nigerian-born, London-based saxophonist Camilla George’s quartet, and the rich Afro-Cuban dance music of pianist and Havana native Dayramir Gonzalez and his band Habana enTRANCé, whose percussion-powered music burned up the stage. When the smoke had cleared, Gonzalez and Gelin had achieved the first tie in DCJazzPrix history, splitting the $15,000 prize.

If the DCJazzPrix ended up as a microcosm of the festival, however, that didn’t make Sunday’s outdoor performances less essential. Stepping away from Union Stage and onto the boardwalk, one could already hear the Spanish Harlem Orchestra at District Pier, picking up where Gonzalez had left off. The 13-piece band brought its celebratory sound to the main stage, drawing equally from Latin jazz, salsa and older Latin dance traditions like mambo. (They also performed new material, with pianist and music director Oscar Hernandez announcing that the SHO was headed into the studio for a new album the following week.)

The SHO was still going when tenor saxophonist Marco Pignataro began his set on the Transit Pier, and the very-much-audible groove did not augment the long solo improv with which his set began. Once that distraction died down, though, it became clear that Pignataro was the least interesting aspect of his own ensemble, which included pianist Alan Pasqua and bassist John Patitucci as well as the smart young drummer Tyson D. Jackson (a former student of Pignataro’s at Berklee Global Jazz Institute). The rhythm section had snap and panache; Pignataro wasn’t bad by any means, but his selection of tunes lacked much fire, and he himself seemed short on inspiration.

Fortunately, there was a virtual carnival of inspiration to follow. District Pier’s stage hosted a celebration of Dr. Billy Taylor, the legendary pianist, educator and D.C. native who would have turned 100 this year. (Taylor died in 2010.) Esteemed Washington pianist Allyn Johnson took the stage first, beginning as a soloist on a radiant version of Taylor’s “Somewhere Soon,” then joining bassist Chip Jackson and drummer Winard Harper — who were both in Taylor’s final trio — for a long take on “Biddy’s Beat.” Then came Afro Blue, Howard University’s a cappella jazz ensemble, to perform two pieces from Peaceful Warrior, Taylor’s suite honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Any Taylor tribute calls for his other civil rights landmark, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”; Afro Blue performed an astonishing version of the composition accompanied by Jackson, Harper and pianist Cyrus Chestnut. It was a powerful piece — and a tough act to follow for guitarist John Scofield’s trio. If he couldn’t quite achieve that level of excitement stirred up by Afro Blue’s performance on the Transit Pier, Scofield sounded as brilliant and scintillating as ever, providing a fitting cap on an eclectic (and longed-for) weekend of music. DB



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