New Jazz Underground Wins DCJazzPrix

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The collective trio ​New Jazz Underground consists of saxophonist Abdias Armenteros, bassist Sebastian Rios and drummer TJ Reddick.

(Photo: Courtesy of New Jazz Underground)

The New Jazz Underground, a trio collective of young Floridians currently based in New York, was the winner of the DCJazzPrix — the DC Jazz Festival’s annual international band competition — whose finals took place Sept. 2 at Washington, D.C.’s Union Stage.

Comprising tenor and soprano saxophonist Abdias Armenteros, bassist Sebastian Rios and drummer TJ Reddick, NJU bested two rival ensembles (the quartet Birckhead and the trio collective Ember) to win the festival competition’s grand prize of $15,000 cash, a year of professional mentorship and a guaranteed performance slot at the festival’s 2024 rendition.

The DCJazzPrix is an unusual jazz competition. It emphasizes stable and working small bands rather than leaders or soloists. Entrants are required to have been a formed and functioning ensemble for at least three years prior to application, and its personnel may not change between application and competition final.

Past winners have included the Julieta Eugenio Trio, Dayramir Gonzalez & Habana Entrance and the Giveton Gelin Quintet.

NJU was the last of the three finalists to perform at Union Stage, a small basement venue at Southwest D.C.’s The Wharf (the DCJF’s regular hub). Judging by audience reaction, however, they were also the most popular. The trio had a foundation of solid groove, enabled by a remarkable synergy between the players. Their 30-minute set began with two original compositions by Rios, part of a larger suite that is both steeped in and focused on the blues, although neither was an actual 12-bar blues form. (“Blues is about earned optimism,” Rios explained. “Optimism that’s not naïve. We’ve earned our optimism, because we started playing together in the parks of New York when we had no place to play.”)

They concluded with the standard “The Nearness Of You” and a third Rios original, “Hold My Halo.” Each tune included extended solos, but in all cases these felt like organic developments on the musical trail they were blazing.

The runner-up for the prize was Brooklyn-based Ember, the competition’s other leaderless trio, featuring bassist Noah Garabedian, drummer Vinnie Sperrazza and multi-horn player Caleb Wheeler Curtis (who at various points wielded alto saxophone, stritch and trumpet). Theirs was a percussive synchronicity, with high levels of empathy and a bold rhythmic exploration. Their work on “Reanimation Zombie Tune” and an untitled (or at least unannounced) free-form piece — which nonetheless had plenty of built-in rhythms — brought to mind other contemporary saxophone trios, such as those led by JD Allen and James Brandon Lewis.

Birckhead, a band rooted in the D.C.–Baltimore region and the only quartet, placed third in the DCJazzPrix. New York-based alto saxophonist Brent Birckhead was the band’s clear leader, taking most of the extended (and very vertical) solos and acting as the center point around which the rhythm section (pianist Noble Jolley, bassist Romeir Mendez and drummer C.V. Dashiell) operated. The band struggled with sound issues throughout the set; Birckhead in particular was low in the mix, an unfortunate circumstance for such a crucial figure.

The competition’s (anonymous) judges offered no commentary on their selections.

The finals were hosted by Aaron Myers, a jazz vocalist and executive director of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. On top of his other talents, Myers is a born showman, easily entertaining the crowd with his off-the-cuff witticisms and a hilarious singalong of beloved TV theme songs that he led from the piano. A gospel version of “The Brady Bunch” — Myers punctuating the solemnly sung lyrics with grunts of “Thank you, Jesus” — was as much fun as the competition itself. DB



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