Jazz Meets the Classics at the Kennedy Center
D’Rivera, Barron, Harris and cohorts swing Bach, Mozart and Chopin at DC Jazz Festival
In 2012, the DC Jazz Festival, which began on June 1 and continues through June 10, is more diplomatic than ever. A genuine citywide effort utilizing more venues than would be reasonable to name here, its programming is diverse and satisfying: community- and family-geared gigs, free events, local showcases, modern-mainstream headliners and, this is a newer and most welcome trend, really hip stuff (Tarbaby, Mark Turner in a quartet with Ambrose Akinmusire).
“Jazz Meets the Classics,” held Monday night at the Kennedy Center, was the sort of program you’d expect from a jazz festival with the national capital as its namesake: uncontroversial, undeniably accomplished music that thrives in an institutional setting—the kind of sets that dovetail swimmingly with local-celebrity hosts and an awards presentation.
Sometimes, of course, such appeasing, general settings amount to lip service. But here the host (D.C.-based ABC news anchor Maureen Bunyan) was excellent and the awards well deserved. (Two DCJF Lifetime Achievement Awards went to Kenny Barron and Ron Carter; two of the festival’s Advocacy Awards went to The Washington Post and the currently thriving D.C. club Bohemian Caverns.) Most important, the music was satisfying for most anyone, from certified jazz heads to politicos who wouldn’t know Sonny Rollins from Sonny Stitt.
This fairly long evening—about two hours and 40 minutes, with intermission—split between two ensembles: a sextet led by clarinetist and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, and the Classical Jazz Quartet of pianist Kenny Barron, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Lewis Nash. Jazz-classical fusion has a long and somewhat checkered history, and the sweeping rule goes something like this: When jazz musicians manipulate the music of European masters, it often works; when a symphony tries to swing and blow, it most certainly does not. Here, it really clicked.
D’Rivera arranged longhaired melodies, by the likes of Bach, Mozart and Chopin, into forward-looking Latin jazz. (Always a cutup, he kept a running joke going about how these virtuoso composers hid their Latin extraction: Bach’s real name, he said, was João Sebastián.) He most often chose the danzón as his mold—D’Rivera is a Cuban expat, after all—but also used Brazilian styles and, on a Mozart adagio, drifting, NOLA-esque R&B. The latter was gorgeous, somehow evoking “Georgia on My Mind” and the melodicism of folk- and pop-influenced ’70s jazz. Elsewhere, between the knotty frontline interplay from D’Rivera and brass player Michael Philip Mossman and the simmering, headlong thrust of drummer Mark Walker, the proceedings reminded you of how D’Rivera helped lay the groundwork for the current crop of edgy, highly technical Latin postbop—think Miguel Zenón, David Sánchez. Another big factor here was a precision usually indicative of conservatory training: This band could read, and their technique was taut and finely intonated—especially in the case of D’Rivera, whose clarion tone and effortless attack always belie his classical training.
The Classical Jazz Quartet followed, and, yes, the shadow of the Modern Jazz Quartet was inescapable. That, of course, isn’t a bad thing. Besides some specific underpinnings that served as reminders of the MJQ—Stefon Harris’ lengthy single-mallet improvisations nodding to Milt Jackson; Ron Carter’s elegant yet earnest touch summoning up memories of Percy Heath—the CJQ resembled the MJQ in m.o. as well: They worked on midcentury jazz terms foremost, giving bop the upper hand over the chamber-music component. (How could they not with Lewis Nash at the kit? Even at his most coloristic and texture-minded, as he was here, he still swings like an ax.) This was the jazz process at its best and, conceptually, most basic.
As if they were Irving Berlin staples, the CJQ took timeless melodies—recognizable stuff even for classical neophytes, like Bach’s “Air on a G String” and “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”—and laid them over harmonies and rhythms fit for a Prestige blowing date. The results were so convincingly straight-ahead that when the quartet played non-classical fare, like Barron’s noir-ish “Phantoms” and Benny Golson’s “Whisper Not,” you might have wondered if they were recastings of Chopin.