Live Review: 14th Annual DC Jazz Festival

Pharoah Sanders, Tia Fuller, and R+R=NOW were among the standouts at this capital affair

Pharaoh Sanders at DC City Winery 2018
Jati Lindsay

Pharaoh Sanders acknowledges the audience during his DC Jazz Festival set, June 9, 2018

The DC Jazz Festival encompasses every quadrant of the nation’s capital. Between June 8 and 17 of this year, it presented more than 125 performances in over 40 venues throughout the district. There were also “Meet the Artist” interviews and all-star tribute concerts to honor recently deceased Washingtonians Geri Allen and Keter Betts, as well as a daily series of widely accessible shows called Jazz in the ’Hoods, many of which were free or of nominal cost. Here were just a few of the highlights seen at a mere three of the festival venues.

City Winery
Venerable jazz shaman Pharoah Sanders gracefully showered his soothingly familiar musical spirituality upon the assembled congregation at City Winery, a functional distillery with an intimate performance space located in northeast DC. Sanders was once responsible for some of the most ear-splitting cacophony ever discharged from a wind instrument; he has long since mellowed. Appropriately, the band’s overture to his warmly awaited arrival onstage was his long-ago employer John Coltrane’s “Welcome.” At age 77, Sanders doesn’t actually play much these days. He left most of the soloing to his longtime pianist William Henderson and soprano saxophonist James “Plunky” Branch, an old friend and founder of the band Oneness of Juju. But the heft, purity, and urgency of his tenor tone remained, most evident in his obligatory yet passionate reading of Coltrane’s “Naima.”

Tia Fuller’s set revealed that she has become a stunning improviser, whose impressive technique in no way lessens her ability to swing. She blows with a strength and conviction firmly rooted in the African-American experience, and spoke movingly of being inspired by the saga of her ancestors’ journey to freedom. Fuller’s sound ranges from a brash, searing edginess, heard to advantage on the uptempo “In the Trenches” from her latest recording, Diamond Cut (Mack Avenue), to thoughtful melancholy, as on the ballad “Save Your Love for Me.” Expect more good things to come from this high-rising star.

The Baylor Project is a boundary-blurring band co-led by husband and wife Marcus and Jean Baylor, on drums and vocals respectively. Their 2017 recording,The Journey (Be a Light), received Grammy nominations for both Best Traditional R&B Performance and Best Jazz Vocal Album. Mr. Baylor plays with crisp, driving force and swings with power and precision. Mrs. Baylor isa mezzo-soprano withthe vocal agility of a coloratura, whoseclever application of bluesy, boppish phrasing is at times playful, at others quite compelling. Both qualities came together on the ballad “Tenderly,” which included some affectionate, strategically placed rejoinders from Mr. Baylor. The Baylor Project’s repertoire includes, in addition to well-executed bop-style originals and standards, traditional hymns and spirituals. Attempts at arranging such material for jazz interpretation often yield results that are unsatisfying to fans of both genres. The Baylors have figured out that they don’t have to tiptoe around the stiff structures of spiritual songs; those melodies can withstand a lot of swing. With its impressive versatility and superb musicianship, the Baylor Project is poised for wider recognition.

Oliver Lake Big Band
Oliver Lake leads his big band during the DC Jazz Festival, June 10, 2018 (photo: Jati Lindsay)

NYU-DC
The Oliver Lake Big Band held sway at the NYU-DC building in the northwest section of the district. This assembly, one of several vehicles for Lake’s stunning range of compositional expression, is one loud, boisterous swingfest. The tight, leaping, and bluesy arrangements closely mirror his own playing style. However, those (like this writer) hoping to hear Lake’s still bold and explosive improvisations were disappointed. Though his alto hung teasingly from his neck throughout the set, the bandleader was the only musician onstage who didn’t play.

An intriguing local group led by cellist/keyboardist Janel Leppin opened for Lake. Its unusual lineup included a harpist (Kim Sator), alto saxophonist (Sarah Hughes), and guitarist (Anthony Pirog). The cello was used both for melody and bass accompaniment, with effective counterpoint provided by the harp. Guitar and saxophone were used mostly as solo instruments and also provided varying shades of tonal color. Any group that does justice, as Leppin’s did, to Alice Coltrane’s “Journey in Satchidananda” could someday be the headlining act.

R+R=NOW (L to R: Justin Tyson, Derrick Hodge, Taylor McFerrin, Robert Glasper, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, and Terrace Martin) at the Anthem Theater during the DC Jazz Festival, June 16, 2018 (photo: Jati Lindsay)

District Wharf/Anthem Theater
The Wharf is a mile-long stretch of stores, restaurants, hotels, and condos along the Potomac River. The Anthem Theater is a new concert hall on the Wharf that can accommodate audiences of 2,500 to 6,000 people. It was the setting for the DCJF’s headliners Maceo Parker, Robert Glasper, and Leslie Odom, Jr., who, curiously, performed on the next-to-last night of the festival instead of the final one.

Glasper’s group R+R=NOW (Reflect+Respond=Now) includes multi- instrumentalist/vocalist Terrace Martin, trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, bassist Derrick Hodge, drummer Justin Tyson, and beatboxer Taylor (son of Bobby) McFerrin. The set began with a song that Glasper mischievously claimed to have composed, Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly.” Its familiar melody was the launching pad upon which each band member improvised. Scott’s was the least effective solo, as the sound of his horn was so heavily synthesized. The obvious MVP was Tyson, whose muscular rhythmic thrust burns with a relentless but controlled fury.

Leslie Odom, Jr. was the most anticipated performer of the evening. He began as expected, with one of his show-stoppers from Hamilton,“Wait for It.” His performance of it was a bit more subtle than the way he typically handled it on Broadway, but a soaring affirmation nonetheless. A Nat “King” Cole medley consisting of “Mona Lisa,” “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street” showcased his charming jazz sensibility; “Mona Lisa,” with only piano accompaniment, was especially poignant. Odom’s set ended with one of the most affecting songs from Rent, “Without You,” a fitting conclusion to a most engaging show.

There were many enjoyable acts at this year’s DCJF, but none could possibly have been more fun than Maceo Parker’s band. A founding father of funk through his work with James Brown and Parliament/Funkadelic, Parker brings forth as much bluesy, greasy on-the-one funk as anyone can handle. After a run through such rave-ups as “Make It Funky,” “Star Child,” and “Soul Power,” he mercifully give the audience a chance to recover. His pleasing vocal on “You Don’t Know Me,” followed by an instrumental version of “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” made the perfect setup for the closer, “Gonna Have a Funky Good Time.” The band laid down a groove so thick and deep that even the most uptight among us were overcome by the urge to bust a move. A surprise cameo by Parker’s fellow J.B.’s alum, trombonist Fred Wesley, who soloed on the original recording of the song, completed an already awesome experience. Can they come back next year, please?