10/10/06

Duke Ellington Jazz Festival 2006

In Washington D.C., straightahead jazz festivals come and go. An important if now forgotten international jazz festival in 1962 unfortunately only lasted one year, and the Kool Jazz Festival played here for only a few years in the early 1980s. There were the short-lived but fondly remembered Cap City Jazz, Jazz Arts, and World Jazz Festivals, and the longer running East Coast Jazz Festival, which still takes place just outside of DC but lacks the bigger marquee names and is geared toward student competitions. Last year, impresario Charlie Fishman filled the cultural void by successfully launching the first annual Duke Ellington Jazz Festival. This year the festival returned, once again with an emphasis on mainstream and international jazz at venues all over town.

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Alan Nahigian

Dr. John

With more than fifty performances in a four-day period there was no way to catch everything, but the NEA Jazz Masters Concert was a can’t miss opportunity to hear both drummer Roy Haynes leading his Fountain of Youth Band and Paquito D’Rivera fronting the United Nation Orchestra. Haynes, who at 81 plays with the verve and dynamism of someone half his age, was especially strong on a hip arrangement of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” with sticks clacking like a flamenco dancer’s heels. A tightly coiled “Trinkle Tinkle” featured dramatic stop-time breaks, with Coltrane-inspired stacked chord statements from saxophonist Jaleel Shaw. Emerging from the wings with his serious game face on, an unannounced Roy Hargrove joined in on flugelhorn, unleashing several climactic choruses on Charlie Parker’s “Segment.”

Haynes made way for D’Rivera and the 13-piece United Nation Orchestra, which boasts many fine soloists, all of whom had ample opportunity to shine: saxophonist Scott Robinson and trumpeter Diego Urcola on “Snow Samba”; D’Rivera himself on a sumptuous, supple “I Remember Diz”; and trumpeters Hargrove and Tanya Darby scorching the upper register on “A Night In Tunisia.” Singer Roberta Gambarini, in an eye-popping black dress, had some problems with the sound in her monitors but gamely made her way through a duet of “Lover Man” accompanied by Fareed Haque, and “Chega de Saudade,” sung in both Portuguese and English. For a special, unrehearsed finale, Na’rimbo, a Mexican marimba group and Colombian harpist Edmar Castaneda joined the orchestra for an all-hands-on-deck rendition of the classic Venezuelan joropo “Alma Llanera.”

The next day when rain threatened the festival’s all-day free concert at the foot of the Washington Monument, festival organizers wisely decided to move everything over to the Lincoln Theater. With less than 24 hours notice to get the word out, the audience turn out for sets by Poncho Sanchez and Dr. John was spotty. Sanchez, however, mined his patented Latin soul-jazz groove with “One Mint Julep,” turned “A Night in Tunisia” into a 6/8 fantasy, transformed “In a Sentimental Mood” into a sensual bolero and got the crowd going with a cover of the Eddie Floyd tune “Raise Your Hand.”

Dr. John emerged for his show resplendent in red and ran through a set of jazz tunes with a funky New Orleans twist. The good doctor spent most of his uninspired set playing Ellington compositions, many of which were the same tired tempo and formula, including a highly resistible version of “Perdido.”

The best of the day’s three sets featured guitarist John Scofield and his quartet with special guest Mavis Staples (Scofield and Staples pictured) delving into the Ray Charles songbook. Interestingly, this was one of the only shows in the entire festival that drew teenagers and twenty-year-old. For the rollicking “Hit the Road Jack,” vocalist Gene Boland combined drive, passion and a strong falsetto, while Scofield traded funky fours with organist Gary Versace. Scofield played a luminously beautiful introduction to “Georgia On My Mind” and later his wicked, stinging solo prompted call & response shout-outs during “Night Time Is the Right Time.” Staples brought down the house on both “I Got a Woman,” which she changed to “I Got a Man,” and her inevitable encore “I’ll Take You There.”

The evening ended a block away in the tiny Cafe Nema where the Argentine trumpeter Diego Urcola performed a set of beautiful, occasionally bracing, original compositions featuring a sextet drawn from the United Nation Orchestra. The most memorable moments came during a slow, then brisk milonga and concluded with Paquito D’Rivera sitting in, locking horns with Urcola and saxophonist-clarinetist Anat Cohen.

Wet weather aside, it’s going to be hard to top this year’s festival, but it’ll be interesting to see Fishman try.

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