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District Jazz

Duke Ellington Jazz Fest 2008: The Evolution of a Jazz Festival

By Published: December 16, 2008
Clad in black the dance troupe—both male and female performers—hit the stage with force, using bodies and voices as instruments as they marched, glided, and stomped in interaction with Smith's band—even at times engaging in trading with slapped thighs, hands, or taping canes. For those unexposed to the form, one of the most intriguing elements is the lack of any clear leader, each dancer taking his or her turn directing the show. At other times, the whole splits into smaller cells, creating a swirl of flowing activity around the stage as the various combinations of dancers divide and reconfigure in constant rhythmic motion. At one point, the entire dance troop surrounded Smith in a fluid circle as he embarked on a long, expressive solo, highlighting visually the concept of solo artist within an improvisational group.

This mesmerizing display of physical movement and eloquent music left the audience amazed at the troupe's power, strength, humor, and grace. In addition, the choice to feature an experimental work by prominent Washington artists enhanced the festival's vitality and underscored the often-overlooked talent "hidden" in DC.

Anat Cohen

Though multi-reedist Anat Cohen played the 2007 festival, her return in 2008 was anything but repetitive, and her performance highlighted the festival's approach to building its strength by expanding throughout the city's diverse venues. In 2007, Cohen delivered a brilliant performance at Bohemian Caverns, a tavern in the U Street historic district which has been a source of music for generations. In 2008, she brought fresh music and new excitement to a more formal but equally creative venue, appearing downtown on stage at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Possessed of a natural, easy stage presence, Cohen's obvious joy in playing is infectious and drew listeners into her world of vibrant, far-ranging music straight from the first tune—a humorous rendition of Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz". Full of clever twists and rapid solos, Cohen deployed her trademark tone on clarinet to mine this tune for all its worth and to start the show with a bang.

As appealing as her variations on traditional tunes are, or her straightforward genre pieces like the night's sparkling roadhouse blues, "J-Blues for Jason," Cohen's greatest moments come when she delves into her more ecstatic compositions and draws together the multiple musical influences that define her palette. These pieces overflow with passionately constructed themes and rhythms and provide a fertile platform for her virtuosic and volatile solos.

The evening's crowning achievement, "Washington Square Park," illustrates this side of Cohen's work. Dedicated to the famous square, the composition plunges its central theme through multiple genres and musical heritages, from middle-eastern, to blues, to rock, to what sounded distinctly like circus music, painting an aural portrait of the park's kaleidoscopic reality. Handled deftly by Cohen and her band, each permutation of the theme, each rhythmic shift, stood individually like a snapshot—first a juggler, then a blues band practicing, then a jazz trio. And yet despite this rush of musical imagery, Cohen's eventual soaring solo managed to draw these pieces together into a cohesive, vivid whole.

Also captivating was a slow ballad that, like "Washington Square Park," took advantage of Cohen's facility in multiple musical spheres and perhaps best showcased her prowess as a soloist. Begun as lament, Cohen's solo expanded on the waves of the tune's cascading rhythm into a soaring bloom of light, only to return again to the tune's original mournful seed, creating an elegiac paean blurring the divide between sorrow and spiritual celebration.

Dana Leong

Like Cohen, cellist/trombonist Dana Leong participated in last year's festival, playing both as a member of festival artistic director Paquito D'Rivera's trio and as a member of the Sibusiso Victor Masondo ensemble. But audiences who came to coffee shop/art house Bus Boys and Poets expecting the same Leong were in for a surprise.

This time Leong arrived with his hip-hop influenced group, complete with MC, keyboards, laptop, kicking beats, and an audacious sonic blend that knocked audience members out of their seats and kept them shouting for encore after encore.

Opening with an intense, heavy rhymed tune thick with distortion titled "Bonefied," Leong pulled no punches throughout the night as he jumped from original compositions like the soaring crescendo of hope "One Life," to a politically pointed cover of Sam Cooke's, "A Change is Gonna Come," to a cacophonous, brand new tune called "Across the Line".

On each tune, Leong and band mates Aviv Cohen (drums), Adam Platt (keyboards), and MC Core Rhythm, unleashed a seemingly endless array of technical and technological surprises, with Leong taking the lead as he alternated between cello and trombone and adding various layers of effects to both.

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