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Review: The DC Jazz Festival Keeps On Adapting

Lee Mergner reports on the Washington fest's return to live in-person performance

Lakecia Benjamin in performance at the 2021 DC Jazz Festival (photo by Jati Lindsay)
Lakecia Benjamin in performance at the 2021 DC Jazz Festival (photo by Jati Lindsay)

I had hoped to report on the 2021 edition of the DC Jazz Festival without using the word “pivot,” a term that was already overused in the business world well before the pandemic. But since March 2020, it seems like the whole world has been forced to use the P-word, including jazz festivals and presenters. This year, the DC Jazz Festival moved from mid-June, its usual time of year, to Labor Day weekend, a shift also made by the Atlanta Jazz Festival (normally held on Memorial Day weekend). That end-of-summer weekend has always been the preferred time for multiple jazz events, including the Detroit, Vail, and Monty Alexander festivals, who this year all stuck to their past schedules, making for some tough choices for artists and fans alike. Many musicians played the DC festival in addition to one or even two others, relying on the nearby Reagan National Airport to make those sets in distant cities during the same weekend.

The DC Jazz Festival spans more than just the two weekend days that I witnessed; there were events all over the city throughout the week, albeit with much less frequency and size than in past years. Washington is an international city with residents and institutions from all over the world, but it’s also a local one with dozens of distinct neighborhoods. The festival’s artistic director Willard Jenkins has always done his best to meet the needs of both constituencies head-on by programming internationally diverse shows at embassies and cultural centers, as well as putting on concerts in a variety of local community venues as part of a series called “Jazz in the ‘Hoods.” Although those local concerts were scaled back, at least in comparison to their pre-COVID iterations, the game plan remained in force.

Weekday concerts and events aside, the real substance of the festival took place at a recently developed and highly trafficked area called the Wharf along the Potomac River waterfront, replete with trendy restaurants and shops. Over two days, more than 16 acts performed sets on stages at two separate piers, though not so separate as to prevent the sound from bleeding across the water. For the most part, set times were staggered to eliminate that conflict and also to enable the audience to go from one to the other.

An experienced curator of live jazz, Jenkins deftly programmed the two days with an impressive mix of local and national acts, who covered most of the genres long associated with this music. The inclusion of area-based artists is essential for any jazz festival, and DC was able to use the talents of musicians who live nearby and have real bona fides in the wider jazz community. Saxophonists Paul Carr and Marshall Keys have been central figures in the local jazz scene for decades, but both have also toured internationally. They recently teamed together for a band they call Carr Keys (jazz musicians do love their puns), which opened Saturday’s schedule with a swinging hard-bop set featuring Carr on tenor and Keys on alto. The two-sax frontline brought some real electricity to an acoustic set.

Paul Carr and Marshall Keys perform at the 2021 DC Jazz Festival (photo by Jati Lindsay)
Paul Carr and Marshall Keys perform at the 2021 DC Jazz Festival (photo: Jati Lindsay)

Opening the next day on that same stage was another local legend, vibraphonist (and sometimes drummer) Chuck Redd, who had just come from an appearance with Monty Alexander at Monty’s festival in Easton, Md., and would be flying out after this show to play with him again at the Detroit Jazz Festival the following day. In a set that featured a mix of standards, originals, and a tune by Milt Jackson—the vibes player Redd most resembles—his band played lots of blues and lots of swing, embodied best in their rendition of the leader’s composition “Groove for Gail.” Other regional artists on the festival schedule included the Ernest Turner Trio and EJB Quartet (with guest Benny Benack III on trumpet). 

To attract large audiences, a festival needs more high-profile headliners and special events, which the DC Jazz Festival delivered despite the challenges of the pandemic. One highlight for me was the appearance by the Maria Schneider Orchestra, which for the very first time performed material from its Grammy-winning album Data Lords, in which Schneider addresses the impact of the large information-aggregating entities like Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon. The album was released in the summer of 2020, and all the live dates that the group had lined up disappeared while the musicians (and fans) began a long period of self-isolation, a condition not suited to a working big band. The orchestra’s performance at the festival was also its first without longstanding pianist Frank Kimbrough, who died in December from a heart attack. The capable and versatile Gary Versace took over the piano chair and did great on his first run. He could have even doubled on accordion, but Julian Labro was already on hand.

Putting aside Schneider’s composing and arranging skills, the strength of her band lies with its esteemed members, most of whom are first-call musicians in NYC. Among the soloists during the orchestra’s set were Marshall Gilkes, Rich Perry, Mike Rodriguez, Steve Wilson, Dave Pietro, Ben Monder, and Scott Robinson, all leaders in their own right. Those soloists gave real voices to the narrative; Monder’s dissonant guitar reflected disruptive forces in “Don’t Be Evil,” and Robinson’s otherworldly baritone saxophone represented satellites orbiting the earth in “Sputnik,” about which Schneider commented, “It used to be that space travel was for nations, but now it’s for corporations.”

Another very special performance was the tribute to Dr. Billy Taylor, who not only was born and raised in DC but also became a foundational figure for performing arts in the area as Artistic Director for Jazz at the Kennedy Center, as well as the host of radio shows on NPR. This year marks the jazz pianist and advocate’s centennial, though it seems like it was just a few years ago that he was among us. Naturally, the tribute featured some piano players, including Cyrus Chestnut and Allyn Johnson, who both have roots in the area and, like so many, were mentored by Dr. Taylor. The late pianist’s longtime rhythm section of Chip Jackson on bass and Winard Harper on drums provided the backbone for yet another swinging set that also included soulful and spirited contributions from Afro Blue, the famous vocal ensemble from Howard University.

Allyn Johnson and Cyrus Chestnut performing in Billy Taylor Tribute at the DC Jazz Festival (photo by Jati Lindsay)
Allyn Johnson and Cyrus Chestnut performing in Billy Taylor tribute at the DC Jazz Festival (photo: Jati Lindsay)

Obviously more than a gifted pianist, Taylor was also a prolific composer, perhaps best known for his stirring composition “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” He certainly deserves to be memorialized more prominently in his hometown; maybe a statue of him can go in place of one honoring a Civil War “hero,” though Taylor himself was not at all self-aggrandizing and preferred to speak to audiences, peers, and protégés on ground level rather than from a pedestal.

Another notable headliner who attracted a large and enthusiastic audience was guitarist John Scofield, who performed with his simpatico trio of Vicente Archer and Bill Stewart. Possessed with one of the most distinctive guitar sounds and senses of phrasing in jazz, Scofield can veer from swing to funk to soul to rock and back through again, sometimes on the same tune. As evidenced by their performance of a composition from his country-inspired album Country for Old Men, he can even make a Hank Williams song sound like a soul or gospel tune. Throughout his set (and his entire career, for that matter), Scofield has remained faithful to the groove, and the rhythm section of Archer and Stewart ably kept that faith.

John Scofield in performance at the 2021 DC Jazz Festival (photo by Jati Lindsay)
John Scofield in performance at the 2021 DC Jazz Festival (photo: Jati Lindsay)

More than once during his duties as an MC, Jenkins spoke about how jazz has truly become an international music, and how that focus would provide one of the main themes for the festival. There were numerous manifestations of that broader view of jazz, but one of the more obvious ones was a set by Italian saxophonist Marco Pignataro, who’s been working with Danilo Pérez’s Global Music Institute at Berklee College of Music. Presented in partnership with the Italian consulate, his Jazzet, featuring Alan Pasqua (piano), John Patitucci (bass), and Tyson Jackson (drums), played selections from his project “Passione – Canto Italiano” (Italian love songs). The quartet even played a song by Patitucci, also a teacher at the Institute and born into an Italian-American family. The result was an entertaining combination of infectious rhythms, hummable melodies, and dynamic improvisation.

Another, more surprising illustration of the international side of jazz was a set of Brazilian music by a group led by Orrin Evans, someone heretofore not associated with that genre. The project, called Terreno Conum, was commissioned by Janis Burley Wilson of the August Wilson African American Cultural Center in Pittsburgh and featured Evans as pianist and music director along with vocalist Alexia Bomtempo, guitarist Leandro Pellegrino, bassist Luques Curtis, and drummer Clarence Penn—a delightful blend of American and Brazilian musicians. The musical emphasis leant heavily on the latter, with performances of standards by Djavan, Jobim, Baden Powell, and other Brazilian legends. And for those wanting a more high-energy sound, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra led by Oscar Hernandez provided that con brio with their usual brand of danceable New York-style Latin jazz and salsa. Even tourists walking along the wharf area, far out of sight, were moving their feet, hips, and other body parts. Ditto for Saturday’s set by Cuba’s own Pedrito Martinez.

There’s more to any solid jazz festival than local legends, special shows, noted headliners, and international influences. It should also present emerging artists whom audiences may not have seen before. I was pleased to see and hear two very strong young musicians who are making names for themselves on the New York jazz scene, coincidentally playing the same instrument: the alto saxophone. On Saturday, Lakecia Benjamin performed music from her latest album Pursuance, inspired by the music of John and Alice Coltrane. There are tributes aplenty to the former but less so to the latter, though thanks to efforts by artists like Brandee Younger and Ravi Coltrane, the pianist and harpist has been getting more attention in the last few years. Benjamin combines a bright sound with an equally bright stage presence, and playing songs like “Alabama” and “A Love Supreme” gives her a chance to show off her considerable chops.

Immanuel Wilkins in performance at the 2021 DC Jazz Festival (photo by Jati Lindsay)
Immanuel Wilkins in performance at the 2021 DC Jazz Festival (photo: Jati Lindsay)

Another young player with serious skills, Immanuel Wilkins, took to the same stage on Sunday, performing with a stellar band of Micah Thomas (piano), Linda Oh (bass), and Eric McPherson (drums). At times Wilkins’ group sounded like an early edition of one of Ornette Coleman’s quartets, playing a sort of inside/out swing with both jarring rhythms and jagged tone. Yet on the appropriately titled “The Dreamer,” a tune from his recent album Omega on Blue Note, Wilkins explored a simple melody in all its beauty and clarity.

One way of bringing younger artists and perhaps even younger audiences into the fold is to host a competition for emerging artists. What’s unique about the one that the DC Jazz Festival hosts—the DC JazzPrix—is that it’s entirely oriented toward bands rather than soloists. This year three bands played 20-minute sets at the “bake-off” on a secondary stage, all under a leader’s name and all with roots outside the U.S.: pianist Dayramir Gonzalez & Habana Entrance; a quintet led by trumpeter Giveton Gelin; and a quartet led by saxophonist Camilla George. For the record, I don’t like these competitions and have eschewed participating as judge in any of them. Quite simply, despite the attention that’s historically been given to cutting contests and the like, jazz is not a competitive sport. And asking anyone to choose the “best” is folly, like asking me to choose the best pianist among Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and McCoy Tyner (my own personal Mount Rushmore of jazz piano). No thanks, I’ll listen to them all. Nonetheless, I do appreciate the chance such contests provide to see and hear new artists.

I recently interviewed the drummer Willie Jones III for an upcoming feature in JazzTimes and asked him about the Thelonious Monk Competition he entered back in 1992. I recalled hearing him in the semifinals and being surprised that he didn’t make the finals. But I couldn’t remember who won that year (it was Harold Sumney). Willie told me who else competed and didn’t make the finals; that list read like a who’s-who in the Best Drummer category of jazz publications’ Critics’ Polls (oops, another competition). The lesson is that it doesn’t matter who wins in these things but what they do in the ensuing years. I didn’t see the performances by the three groups because of conflicting schedules, but I’m familiar with all three leaders, and each one has a bright future. Two were declared winners in a tie, with the third left out. As with my piano heroes, I’m going to listen to them all and I’m not paying attention to the final score.

Outstanding music aside, the festival was not without its issues, nearly all of them having to do with the location of the two piers for the festival-like sets. Their narrow but deep structure made for real challenges with sightlines, seating, and sound. Social distancing was well-nigh impossible except for the artists performing on the aptly named Transit stage, a floating barge-like platform moored to the pier and at least five feet down and 20 feet away from the first row of listeners, sitting in a roped-off section for VIPs. As I was leaving on the last day, I ran across a jazz fan friend who was eating at one of the many restaurants with outdoor seating at the Wharf. He said, “Wasn’t this festival the greatest?” I then offered some of my aforementioned criticism. He said, “Well, the music was great, and isn’t that what counts most?” Given the challenges that this organization faced over the last 18 months and what they accomplished in presenting jazz in all its very real diversity, yeah, I guess so.