Capital Boppin’: Jazz & Soul Mingle at 2017 DC Jazz Fest


Odean Pope (left) leads his sax choir on June 16 during the Captialbop DC Jazz Series in Washington, D.C.

(Photo: Michael Wilderman)

Every noteworthy jazz festival finds its groove. That groove is the delicate balance of titilating festivalgoers with burgeoning talent, some of which will offer something new and exciting while simultaneously building upon the familiar. Under the guidance of artistic director Willard Jenkins, the 13th annual DC Jazz Festival (June 9–18) boogied on the good foot assuredly.

For all the discussion about the District’s shifting demographic and rapid gentrification, the DC Jazz Festival acknowledges that the District is still Chocolate City. And it wisely programmed its lineup with the city’s rhythmic pulse in mind, supplying healthy doses of top-shelf straightahead jazz and jazz/soul/hip-hop hybrids.

The city’s cosmopolitan makeup wasn’t ignored. The fest presented singer and songwriter Debora Petrina at the Italian Cultural Center; pianist Chano Dominguez at the former residence of the ambassador of Spain; and saxophonist Jane Bunnett and her all-female band of Afro-Cuban musicians Maqueque at the 6th and I Street Synagogue.

As before, the DC Jazz Festival inhabited many other performance spaces and neighborhoods throughout the city, including the Howard Theater, where Lalah Hathaway kicked off the soiree, and the Kennedy Center, where Pat Metheny made his debut at both the festival and the iconic venue by treating the audience to an extravagant two-hour-plus reexamination of his oeuvre. He reached back to old classics such as “Bright Size Life,” “Phase Dance” and “American Garage,” then shuffled them inside a program that included more recent gems such as “Kin” and “Adagia.”

This year’s edition saw the loss of one of its partnership with the Hamilton nightclub and restaurant, which last year boasted major headlining acts for eight days. On the upside, the festival saw its Capitalbop DC Loft Jazz series tightened, with a sharper programming focus and better venues. The series brought such emerging talents as harpist Brandee Younger, singer Christie Dashiell, trumpeter Brian Settles, trombonist Reginald Cyntje and guitarist Mary Halvorson. One of its most winning showcases this year was veteran saxophonist Odean Pope and his Saxophone Choir.

Appearing at the intimate yet eruditely posh New York University in DC’s Abramson Family Auditorium, the 78-year-old Pope proved that age is just a number as he harnessed his diamond-hard tone, supple phrasing and corkscrew improvisations through luxuriant, soulful and, at times, harmonically intrepid originals “Epitome,” “Coltrane Time” and “Prince Lasha.” The accompanying saxophonists and rhythm section afforded the set a weighty suspense that juxtaposed brawny displays of shrieking dissonance and multiphonics with the zeal of a large big band.

Still, the best example of the DC Jazz Festival’s astute programming is its three-day outdoor extravaganza at the city’s refurbished 42-acre Yards Park near the Anacostia River waterfront. During the last two days of this segment (which concluded the festival), the DC Jazz Festival featured two reliable big-marquee acts—the Robert Glasper Experiment and Gregory Porter. Both festival billings gave exhilarating performances that resembled old-school church services, and though nearly everyone in the congregation knew most of the tunes, each performer slid in refreshing curveballs.

For Glasper it was by way of the new lineup of his Experiment, especially Michael Severson, whose electric guitar riffs and lacerating solo on “Find You” brought a razor-sharp rock edge to Glasper’s music. The pianist and keyboardist focused much of the set on material from the Experiment’s most recent disc, ArtScience (Blue Note), which leans even more toward early-’80s electro-soul than the previous releases—especially such tunes as “No One Like You” and “Thinkin’ Bout You.”

During the middle of his performance, however, Glasper segued into a meditative duet with turntablist Jahi Sundance on the sublime piano ballad treatment of Kendrick Lamar’s “I’m Dying Of Thirst,” which better highlighted the keyboardist’s beguiling sense of melodicism and impressionistic improvisations.

Having Porter close the festival on Father’s Day was an ingenious move, considering his jovial, sagacious stage demeanor as he delivered such rewarding originals as “Don’t Lose Your Steam” (which is dedicated to Porter’s son), “Holding On,” “Liquid Soul” and, of course, his galvanizing protest anthem, “1960 What?”

Fronting his now well-established combo with the anchoring music direction of pianist Chip Crawford, Porter whipped up a feverish gospel-fueled jazz-soul set that left many smiles on the faces of the energetic crowd, a few members of which danced in front of the stage.

This year’s Yards edition also offered other high-caliber performances, such as alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett’s quintet, and singer-songwriters Kandace Springs and Sarah Elizabeth Charles. Garrett, in particular, delivered a high-octane performance that matched the sweltering weekend heatwave, powering his scalding alto tone, trance-like melodies and eruptive improvisations through such bristling originals as “A Side Of Hijinki,” “Philly” and the feel-good “Happy People.” Garrett also made a surprise guest appearance with the Robert Glasper Experiment in an encore that found the altoist trading searing improvisations with Casey Benjamin on soprano sax.

At the Yards on Saturday afternoon, the DC Jazz Festival also presented British wunderkind Jacob Collier, whose electronica-meets-analog one-man act can certainly veer toward the gimmicky, especially as he manically moves from one instrument to the next to play small riffs, samples and loops that build a formidable sonic bed. But there’s no denying the craftsmanship it takes to bring that bedroom creativity to a stage. And Collier brought a crazed showmanship that was infectious as he performed much material from his acclaimed 2016 debut disc, In My Room.

Black Violin’s mélange of hip-hop and classical musical had a similar effect on the crowd the following Sunday afternoon. Fronted by classically trained violinist Wilner Baptiste and Kevin Sylvester, the combo entranced festivalgoers with songs from its debut disc, Stereotypes, which possesses a sound that can be best described as Kronos Quartet-meets-The Roots.

And while some audience quipped at both Collier and Black Violin’s respective sets as pop concessions, they couldn’t argue that the DC Jazz Festival had plenty of soul to spare. DB

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September 2023
Kris Davis
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