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Live Review: DC Jazz Festival 2019

Out of more than 120 performances over eight days, here are five that caught our attention

Etienne Charles and Creole Soul
Etienne Charles (center) with Creole Soul at the 2019 DC Jazz Festival (photo: Jati Lindsay)

The 15th annual DC Jazz Festival marked the full maturation of an event that began in 2004 as the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival; it’s been known by its current name since 2010. From June 7 through 16, the 2019 edition of the DCJF presented more than 120 performances at 40 venues throughout the nation’s capital. A daily series of shows called “Jazz in the ’Hoods,” all of which were either free or of nominal cost, ensured that the music was widely accessible. There were also several “Meet the Artist” interviews and all-star tribute concerts. Legends, up-and-comers, international stars, and local stalwarts were all included in this year’s lineup, as well as both mainstream and avant-garde styles.

Here are only a few of the highlights, as seen at just five of the festival venues.

The Residence of the Ambassador of Denmark, June 6
Stefon Harris and Blackout headlined the festival’s opening night with a set that reflected a synthesis of traditional and contemporary styles, the foundation of the band’s oeuvre. Its driving arrangement of Bobby Timmons’ “Dat Dere” was initially unrecognizable, as it didn’t begin with the chorus as usual. Once that memorable melody was inserted into the piece already in progress, the cleverness of Blackout’s version was revealed. (A number of audience members were observed turning toward each other and mouthing the words, “Oh, that’s what that is!”) The group’s lineup included regular members Terreon Gully on drums and Casey Benjamin on saxophone and vocoder; two DC natives, pianist Marc Cary and bassist Ben Williams, both of whom would play with other groups during the festival, rounded out the quintet. Gully’s rhythmic velocity inspired some enthusiastic toe-tapping and head-bobbing. But the leader was Blackout’s driving force, a whirling dervish of mallets and sweat striking the bars of the vibraphone and marimba with joy, fury, and passion.

The Hamilton, June 7
Anat Cohen, who first played the DC Jazz Festival in 2007, returned this year with a tight band to undergird her elastic clarinet. Her ensemble included pianist Gary Versace, bassist Tal Mashiach on bass, drummer Anthony Pinciotti. Cohen’s sound is imbued with an array of tonal qualities, from wailing and boppish to lilting and emotive. She opened with a composition of hers called “Happy Song,” which began with a loping cadenza that gave way to an aggressive attack, firmly supported by the rhythm section. The gentle “Waltz for Alice” featured sparkling accompaniment by Versace and nimble assistance from Mashiach. The set ended with “Jimmy,” a surprisingly funky workout that displayed a seldom-seen side of Cohen. We’d love to see more of it. Pinciotti, a drummer of strength and versatility whose style might have fit in just as well with a thumping fusion band, easily could have become overpowering in an acoustic setting. But he served the group well with his restraint, while still managing to crackle and rumble.

RhizomeDC, June 8
Joe Morris is a musician of rare originality in the avant-garde school of string benders. His set at the community arts space RhizomeDC provided a clear illustration of his unique approach to the guitar: rarely playing chords, opting instead for clean, precise, and rapid single-note lines that run the gamut from bop to free improv. He began soloing briefly before being joined by the sturdy and highly flexible drummer, Tomas Fujiwara. Morris’ playing keeps the listener intrigued and engaged with its loose, irregular structure that nonetheless maintains a sense of logic. Fujiwara added rhythmic weight to Morris’ phrasing, which eventually led both men to pick up steam before coming to an agreement that it was time to end. Musicians of this style can sometimes blow past each other, but these two were simpaticoin their winding interaction. There were points at which Morris’ melodies were slow and plaintive or dark and foreboding; during those passages, Fujiwara’s brushwork was hushed and airy, channeling the mood.

The Kennedy Center, June 9
The festival’s all-star tribute to Randy Weston included three longtime members of his group, alto/soprano/flutist TK Blue (a.k.a. Talib Kibwe), bassist Alex Blake, and percussionist Neil Clarke. They were joined by pianists Rodney Kendrick, Marc Cary, and Vijay Iyer for several of Weston’s best-known compositions. The three Weston alumni played “Ganawa (Blue Moses),” which was performed at nearly every Weston show since the early ’70s. Kendrick was the first stand-in; his rendering of the swinging waltz “Berkshire Blues”—later covered by Betty Carter as “Ego”—captured the drive and spirit of the piece in a way that surely would have made its author proud, and his reading of “African Village Bedford-Stuyvesant 1,” from The Spirits of Our Ancestors, was a delightful romp. Next up was Iyer, not the most obvious choice for this affair. However, he seized upon an aspect of Weston’s playing that was sometimes overlooked: his elliptical melodicism and angular dissonance, which were most evident on “The Shrine,” from the 1998 recording Khepera. Cary was the final guest, providing warm and soulful renditions of “Portrait of Patsy J” and “Babe’s Blues.” The finale featured a boisterous rotation of the three pianists as they tore through “Hi-Fly,” two choruses each, which led to a thrilling end with all of them crowded at the keyboard. 

City Winery, June 13
Trumpeter Etienne Charles and Creole Soul brought some Caribbean flava and a thoughtful multimedia experience to the enthusiastic crowd at City Winery, an operational distillery with an intimate performance space located in northeast DC.Charles’ band of merrymakers transition seamlessly between impeccable hard-bop swing and the sizzling shuffle rhythms of his native Trinidad. His conceptual framework draws upon all aspects of the African, Afro-American, Afro-Caribbean, and Creole musical traditions, bringing it all together to create what Randy Weston meant by the term “pan-African classical music.” Charles is an affecting soloist, and a credible conguero, but his artistic objectives go beyond playing music; he’s also a documentary filmmaker/producer who has thoroughly researched the history of his country’s social and cultural dynamics. He showed one of those films during the set, a silent film depicting an obscure folk ritual, for which the band provided live accompaniment. It is this depth of commitment to his craft that makes Charles one of today’s most compelling artists.

All the above and much more showed why the DC Jazz Festival is becoming one of the major summer jazz festivals on the East Coast, an increasingly sought-after destination for performers and enthusiasts alike.