Every summer, the DC Jazz Festival shines a spotlight on Washington, D.C.'s expanding music scene, having grown in parallel with the increased number of jazz clubs, venues, and musicians the nation's capital now harbors. The relationship has been mutually reinforcing. The festival created a national brand and, especially in its early years, harnessed the support of major sponsors and city officials behind the mission of celebrating D.C's jazz legacy. In turn, the clubs' bookings and ties to local musicians kept the festival's lineup full and energized.
Now in its eighth year, it would be reasonable to assess the endeavor's success. It is inarguable that the festival has amplified the voice of jazz in D.C. It has brought many innovative artists to the city and offered them a space to showcase original, ambitious music. This hallmark of the festival is sometimes overlooked. It can be difficult for artists to put forward large ensembles or challenging, experimental works, but the festival's partnerships with the Kennedy Center, the Sixth and I Synagogue, and many of the other D.C. performing arts spaces have afforded audiences over the years the opportunity to hear music rarely taken on the road. At the same time, the festival has been strategic in building on its successes, leveraging relationships and bringing artists back in morphing configurations over multiple years. This tendency to recycle contentmore noticeable recentlyhas drawn some criticism.
Certainly, the festival would benefit from booking more new artists. Greater diversity would further strengthen the festival's national reputation and afford audiences exposure to an even wider spectrum of contemporary jazz. However, since this is a jazz festival, the issue isn't black and white. As jazz fans well know, one of the joys of jazz is that audiences can see the same players perform three nights in a row, but hear entirely different music. So while frequent festival goers couldn't fail to note that the 2013 schedule brought back a lot of faces familiar to D.C., including Roy Hargrove
, and vocalists Buika and Susana Baca. And, once again, the festival linked arms with the Capitol Bop Loft Series to offer avant-garde happenings in improvised spaces across the city.
A Night in the Life of the DC Jazz Festival
A more detailed dive into a single night of performances illustrates the festival's depth. On Sunday, June 9, Roy Hargrove returned for his annual festival performance, this time at the Hamilton Theater, which hosted many of this year's main festival acts. Performing with a quintet, Hargrove served up his signature brand of contemporary jazz, blending post-bop swing with softly textured ballads, and even seduced the audience with a vocal rendition of "Never Let Me Go," sounding at times as if he were channeling Jimmy Scott
showcased a stunningly inventive set of new music titled "Bagels to Bongos" at the Sixth and I Synagogue. Playing to a packed house (lines went around the block), O'Farrill and featured artist Anat Cohen filled the Synagogue's ornate space with a distinctive concoction of Latin, Jewish, and jazz musical traditions. Exploring the historical link between Afro-Latin and Jewish music, the band blended mambos, merengues, klezmer, and Middle Eastern threads to potent effect. Particularly notable was Cohen's interaction with the band, her passionate playing and free-spirited approach feeding the explosive rhythms and big sound. Both penetrating and uplifting, the music received a standing ovation response.
Next on the menu was a blistering performance by innovative guitarist Lionel Loueke
at Bohemian Caverns. Completing a multi-day stint at the famous club, the trio visited music from Loueke's latest Blue Note release, Heritage (2013), but in an extraordinary display of technical prowess and improvisatory freedom, this material acted only as a launching pad for a more experimental vision. Over the course of the set, Loueke poured forth a veritable treatise on modern guitar modes, incorporating into his African-tinged jazz compositions everything from Seefeel-type ambient texture and funk grooves to Jimi Hendrix
The ultra-slow tempo, whale-song calls, and gentle vocals of "Hope" evoked a far-off place of memories, while the groove-based "Tribal Dance" built to a crescendo of distorted squalls, and the grand finale, "Freedom Dance," put Loueke's guitar mastery front and center. On this last piece, Loueke let out all the stops, deploying seemingly every guitar technique available to craft an extended sonic journey centered at the crossroads of African traditions and modern jazz. Opening with a vocal line, Loueke used electronic triggers to create a multilayered hypnotic line that he eventually picked up and interwove with equally sophisticated guitar phrases, single-handedly establishing an undulating rhythmic and melodic foundation for the rest of the piece. From there, with the full complicity of his trio mates, Loueke fret tapped, picked, slapped, and strummed his way to peak after peak, driving the audience to its feet to dance and shout in true West African tradition, the music raining down as if happiness were cracked open to descend like confetti.
If Loueke's performance approached the edge of modern jazz, the night's next offering shattered the very concept of such an edge. Ensconced on a tiny stage at the far end of a narrow, tunnel-like art gallery, Gerald Cleaver
's partnership with Napalm Death drummer and dark wave innovator Mick Harris has there been such a challenge to the outer boundaries of jazz. In a single tune, Black Host vaulted from free-jazz explosions and anthem rock, '90s alternative and heavy metal, to straight ahead jazz and third stream and back againmating these elements into a wholly realized cacophony of syncretism.
Presiding over this orgiastic sonic coupling sat Cleaver, perched on his drum stool like Pan, coolly pounding out hard rock grooves, thrash metal grinds, punk eruptions, pulsing swing and Tony Williams
maintained thunderous bass lines with his heavily amplified upright, while periodically employing various objects to manipulate its strings like a slide guitaristthe result, a series of unprecedented throbbing, keening atmospherics. Maintaining the grueling pace of this wildly shifting landscape would have been impressive enough, but Black Host's true achievement only became evident over time: the frenzy was controlled, the apparent mayhem the product of precision and design. The interlocking structures, the constant deconstruction and reconstruction heralded not merely genre demolition but instead the birth of the new.
This sampling of just one of the festival's 12 days provides a window into the musical span on tap. Yet several other shows deserve particular mention and illustrate the overall diversity on display.
, and part of an ongoing project to explore"the poetry, thoughts, and untapped musical vistas [of her work]."
Over the course of the evening, Cary proved himself a fitting disciple, his artistic forays mirroring Lincoln's distinctive blend of soul wrenching honesty and intellectual depth. And though clearly bound to Lincoln's work, Cary's embrasure of this legacy approached the music less in the vein of obvious tribute and more like Dostoevsky visiting Gogol. The pianist began with a graceful, mid-tempo piece anchored by firm rhythmic figures in the lower registeralmost pastoral- tinged and augmented by a rich dynamic texture. It was immediately clear that the solo format, aided by the familial, intimate setting, functioned to magnify the emotive resonance of Cary's playing without obscuring the rhythmic dynamism or intellectual acuity that has been his signature.
Next, Cary was joined by surprise local guest, Jabari Exum, on djembe, converting the solo performance into an unusual, improvised duet. The interplay and additional pulsating energy only accentuated the structural clarity and sensitivity of Cary's approach to Lincoln's music as he presented one insightful tune after another, closing appropriately with a transportive rendition of "Music is the Magic."
Just as the Bohemian Caverns has been an anchor for the festival, the Atlas Theater is fast proving an important new venue not just for the festival, but for D.C.'s jazz scene overall. Under the guidance of Brad Linde, the Atlas has added a jazz series to its theater, dance and other offerings. This year, Linde closed the Atlas' season by hosting a performance by his mentor, the venerable West Coast legend Lee Konitz
Playing with a new 18-piece big band, Konitz quickly established an atmosphere of good-natured openness, drawing the audience in with his repartee and relaxed demeanor. In fact, it felt as if the audience had been invited to participate in a workshop, not a polished concert, and the sense of witnessing the music evolving before your eyes made the evening all the more appealingand certainly no less moving. Under the guiding voice of Konitz and joined by guest drummer Matt Wilson
, the band delivered a series of cool, ultra-mellow tunes that carved out a portrait of subtle, barely exposed emotions, abstract vistas, and truncated, implied narratives. The band hit a high point with Konitz's "Cary's Trance," a taut original of half-submerged themes and hypnotic lines, the notes emerging like hushed recollections of a lost cityscape, raising afterimages of late night trysts, mournful alley encounters, all illumed in watery light and the pulse of spent, unseen traffic.
Completing its eighth year, the DC Jazz Festival once again put forward a satisfying buffet of music, with more on offer than any individual could possibly consume. While some of that fare represented staples of the D.C. jazz scene and some tried and true material, plenty of unique and surprising music could be found. An obvious danger is that the festival may become complacent and overly patterned. Hopefully it will continue to stretch its limits, to build on its brand to invite experiment and inspire innovationand, in doing, so take full advantage of Washington's renewed enthusiasm for jazz in the kinetic manner with which the festival has interacted with the city from its inception.