An embassy may seem like an unusual place to kick off the 2023 DC Jazz Festival, but it made for a good indication of the international and collaborative atmosphere fostered by the annual event.
The DC Jazz Festival opening night at the House of Sweden, the embassy for Sweden and Iceland, began with a speech by Icelandic ambassador Berdis Ellertsdóttir on the popularity of America's music in the Nordic country. The festival collaborated with other embassies across the next five days to bring an international flair to the festival, while also keeping an eye on DC's unique musical heritage. Sunna Gunnlaugs
's trio kicked off the night at the House of Sweden with songs from her 2023 album Becoming
and other pieces from her career including "24 Hour Trip."
"In Iceland we always talk about weather," Gunnlaugs, referring to tracks on Becoming
like "Suddenly Autumn" said to the crowd, "It rules everything."
Gunnlaug's music is warm and melodic, in stark contrast to the Icelandic winter. Drummer Scott McLemore
performance was a highlight of the backing band, changing techniques from sticks to bare hands to mallets depending on the song to add different textures. Following Gunnlaugs was DC string trio The String Queens
. The group of DC-area educators have gained a local following for their versions of popular songs and standards. The performance began with a patriotic medley of traditional American songs before shifting to the meat of the set. Their version of the Beatles "Eleanor Rigby" featured a dramatic rapid string backing to accent the melody and added more rhythmic drive to the tune. A cover of Chick Corea
's "Spain" quickly got the crowd clapping along. The trio ended with an unorthodox melody of two very different pop songs: Adele's vengeful breakup song "Rolling in the Deep" and Gnarls Barkly's "Crazy."
On Thursday, amidst the remains of the shuttered Walter Reed General Hospital, the Alex Hamburger
Quartet and José Luiz Martins
performed with the duo showcasing a strong touch of '70s Chick Corea-style fusion and Latin music. Lisa Sokolov
closed out the evening with an intimate performance at Rhizome DC, a house that was converted to one of the best venues to see live music in the city. Sokolov established an instant relationship with the audience with her spoken word/singing introduction to her show. Sokolov is known locally in part because of long-time Washington DC Jazz radio host Bobby Hill, who uses her version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein hit "Oh' What a Beautiful Mornin'" to introduce his show every week (disclosure this writer is also a host at WOWD-LP). Hill helped bring Sokolov to Rhizome through Transparent Productions, an organization that supports countless avant-garde jazz artists to Washington. She mixed her experimental spoken word style with covers of standards such as "My One and Only Love," and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Sokolov was able to effortlessly shift from different vocal tones, moving from an almost whispered raspy voice to a booming R&B shout in a manner of seconds. The minimal backing music and one band member who joined her on piano, mixed with the slight chirping of crickets from just outside the wooden walls of Rhizome, gave her voice the space to shine through the living room venue.
Friday's set of music at the Anacostia Jazz Hop stretched across several stages in the historic neighborhood. The day focused in part on DC's native form of funk music go-go that added congas and other percussion instruments to funk grooves to create a unique syncopated rhythm. New Orleans band Brass-A-Holics blended go-go with the eighth note pulse of New Orleans bounce, a subgenre of hip-hop. The JoGo Project
blended jazz and go-go, while Black Alley blended hard rock with the DC genre. The Joe Falero Latin Jazz
added a different rhythm direction with a set of classic salsa and Puerto Rican tunes. Terri Lyne Carrington
brought a focus on women composers to the stage on Saturday with her New Standards Project. Vocalist Michael Mayo
's performance of the Carla Bley
ballad "Lawns" was a highlight of the set. Omar Sosa
's Quarteto Americanos brought a burst of energy to the crowd on the DC waterfront. Sosa rose from his piano several times to dance and egg on the audience to sing along. Arturo O'Farrill
closed out the night with his Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble bringing an education in several kinds of Afro-Latin music from Peru and across Latin America. O'Farrill and Sosa's performances were part of a three-year partnership between the DC Jazz Festival and the Embassy of Cuba to foster collaborations across cultures between the U.S. and the island nation.
The festival continued onto Sunday with several emissaries of New Orleans music including Big Chief Donald Harrison
and Etienne Charles
sharing the stage with other jazz greats like bassist Dave Holland
and up-and-coming vocalist Samara Joy
. The diversity on display at the DC Jazz Festival, from its mix of venues that included Rhizome, to the grand festival stages on the piers of the Potomac, made for a memorable four days with something for every music fan.
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