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3rd Annual Duke Ellington Festival, Washington D.C.

Franz A. Matzner By

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Dominated by individual highlights as opposed to any one main event, this year
Duke Ellington Jazz Festival 2007
Washington, D.C.
September 9-17, 2007

Airto Completing its third year, the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival has inarguably established its presence in Washington, D.C. Once again filling the city's concert halls, museums, coffee shops and clubs with music, film, and educational events, including the release of the festival's first live recorded album, the 2007 event was blessed by sunny, perfect weather the full week, and the largest crowds yet.

On call to celebrate Dizzy Gillespie's 90th birthday, an appropriate theme considering Dizzy serves as the festival's second patron saint, were festival stalwarts Paquito D'Rivera, Roy Hargrove, Roberta Gambarini, Davey Yarborough, and Danilo Perez. Adding to this base were players from across the globe, including the Luis Faife Quartet (Cuba), Flora Purim and Airto Moreira (Brazil), Anat Cohen (Israel), and Sibusiso Victor Masondo (South Africa), as well as a plethora of additional performers.

Dominated by individual highlights as opposed to any one main event, this year's festival was peppered throughout with memorable musical peaks. Performing at the opening gala, hosted for the second time by the Inter-American Development Bank, festival artistic director Paquito D'Rivera's trio delivered a compelling set of complex, wide-ranging music.

Always a riveting player himself, D'Rivera gave ample space to his two young protégés, Dana Leong and Alex Brown, a wise choice considering cellist and trombonist Leong's stellar performance. Throughout the evening, Leong's audacious work captivated the audience. Able to bend his instrument into a seemingly endless diversity of sounds, from classical string section, to electric guitar, to traditional Chinese erhu, Leong crafted one stunning solo after another. Leong would later repeat this phenomenon as a member of Masondo's ensemble, standing out again as a player of tremendous force and creativity. (To hear a sample, check out Leong's last release, Leaving New York, or look for his upcoming album due out imminently.)

Another young player who made her mark on the festival was clarinet/saxophonist/bandleader Anat Cohen, whose artistry was in full display as she played to a packed house at basement bar Bohemian Caverns. A complementary contrast to the main stage events, the close quarters of the Caverns afforded audiences a chance to experience Cohen's intensity from literally steps away. Never mind the poor piano, or the dishwasher accompaniment, sometimes jazz is best heard in a small venue, or at least, it is heard differently. Joined by Gilad Hekselman on guitar, Joe Martin on bass, and Daniel Freedman on drums, Cohen displayed her distinctive blend of folk, Brazilian, and traditional jazz influences, inducing an atmosphere ranging from the highly personal to the empyreal. Of particular note was a moving version of "Never Let Me Go, during which Cohen showed herself an artist still searching her depths.


The festival's annual pièce de résistance, a free concert on the National Mall, was also stuffed full of stirring musical moments, as many of the festival headliners gathered together for the day-long concert. Present were Eddie Palmierie, David Sanchez, Danilo Perez, Roy Hargrove, Steve Turre, Paquito, Sibesui Masondo, Purim and Moreira, and many others. In keeping with the Dizzy tribute, much of the music focused on Latin and Pan-African influences on jazz, a continued strength of the festival's overall endeavor.

While each of the presenters took advantage of the weather and attentive crowds to deliver energetic performances, the highlights were reserved for Masondo's set of South African groove-oriented tunes, including an impeccable guest appearance by Steve Turre, and a truly one-of-a-kind solo performance by Airto Moreira.

For those who have never witnessed it before, Moreira's unique solo is a combination of hand-drum and vocal improvisation wrenched directly from his inner being. A mix of guttural growls, chanting, tribal calls, deep breathing, and booming drum work, this display can only be fully experienced live, and each time is a revelation of the power of rhythm, in its most basic, organic form, to first bind together an audience and than transport it.

Like a new restaurant, the Duke Ellington Festival has turned a significant corner, establishing its name, demarcating a recognizable theme, and weathering the first crucial test of simply staying open for business. But like at any popular restaurant, the festival menu has come to rely on some signature ingredients and runs the risk of becoming predictable, even while it satisfies the majority of audience members. To capitalize fully on its successes, the festival will have to take a leap of faith and break its own mold. Doing so will, one hopes, allow the festival to fulfill its ambitious goal of evolving into an internationally recognized event that continues to help return D.C. to the map of jazz cities.


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