May 23, 2024

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Live review and Photo report from DC Jazz Festival 2018 with Pharoah Sanders, Tia Fuller, R+R=NOW: Video

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)


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?

Pharaoh Sanders at DC City Winery 2018

Since its founding in 2005, the DC Jazz Festival has pursued an expansive vision: not just in terms of musical styles, but of the city’s geography. This year, in its 14th iteration, the festival advanced that vision, in both dimensions, perhaps further than ever before.

The 2018 DCJF had two primary outposts, each in a far-flung, previously much overlooked corner of the District. Its flagship venue throughout its eleven-day span, June 8-17, was City Winery, a branch of the New York-based franchise, located in Northeast D.C.’s long-dormant—and now gentrifying—industrial Ivy City neighborhood.

Most of its headline acts performed there—among them The Bad Plus, Patricia Barber, Ben Williams, Raul Midon and a sublime June 10 set by the legendary saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. Backed by pianist William Henderson, bassist Herman Burney Jr., drummer Johnathan Blake and Ghanaian percussionist Okyerema Asante, 77-year-old Sanders showed that age has robbed him of neither richness nor power. In his opening piece, Sanders counterbalanced the swing- and gospel-charged undulations of his band with long, serene tones, played with his slightly coarse tenor. He was mellow, pacific—and still, even as he tamed his accompanists’ motions, somehow thoroughly intense. When the troupe shifted into 3/4 for John Coltrane’s “Ole,” Sanders doubled his tenor with a vocal performance. It was somewhere in the rarely heard middle ground between scat singing and ranting gibberish: violently rhythmic nonsense syllables, which he then emulated on his axe (as did Henderson, then Blake and Asante). It was a remarkable rechanneling of the fervor that Sanders perfected while apprenticing with Coltrane 50 years ago.

The festival’s second stage, as it were, was the newly redeveloped Wharf DC, in the District’s southwest quadrant. In past years, the festival’s presence in Southwest was almost entirely limited to putting its imprimatur on the already thriving Jazz Night at Westminster Presbyterian Church. This time, it all but took over the upscale boardwalk environment for its closing weekend, with music offered on two piers: on an understated alley bandstand and inside the Hyatt Place Washington DC (where bassist Kris Funn, best known for his work with Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, won the DCJF’s band competition, the DC JazzPrix), and at the mammoth new venue Anthem, a three-story, 6,000-seat venue that hosted the festival’s keynote address. It was a triple bill, featuring jazz-funk saxophone icon Maceo Parker, the Robert Glasper-led supergroup R+R=NOW and jazz vocalist/Hamilton star Leslie Odom Jr.

Formidable though Parker and Odom were, the supergroup won the evening. Its sound might be best described as meta-fusion: a combination of hip-hop and r&b with Miles-ian jazz-rock. With Glasper joined by aTunde Adjuah on trumpet; Terrace Martin on alto saxophone, synthesizer and vocoder; Taylor McFerrin on synthesizer and beatbox; Derrick Hodge on bass; and Justin Tyson on drums, the band began with an electro-funk take on Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly” and extended into a long, shapeshifting groove. It ultimately ended in polyrhythms, evoking both pan-African traditions and, not unrelatedly, the M-Base movement. It was well suited to Glasper’s explanation of the band name.

“It’s an equation,” he said, “meaning that if you reflect and respond to what’s happening, you’ll have no choice but to be in … now.”

The festival’s triumph in Southwest included not just the cavernous theaters, but the smaller, fringier spaces. A 225-seat basement room, Union Stage, featured a coruscating set by avant-garde trumpeter Jaimie Branch. Accompanied by a version of the ensemble that appeared on her 2017 Fly Or Die (International Anthem) recording—bassist Jason Ajemian, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and drummers Chad Taylor and Stoli L. Sozzleberg—Branch covered a remarkable sonic range. Here, she was playing loose phrases that coalesced into longer and longer lines, never quite crystallizing into a melody; there, in a duet with the kookier sounds of Sozzleberg’s palette that was the most cohesive and melodically logic moment of the night. At one point, Branch simply played a long, circular-breathed drone over thrumming ostinati by Lonberg-Holm and Ajemian, ultimately moving the trumpeter to put her horn aside and grunting aggressively into the microphone.

The festival’s standby locations also got superlative musical workouts. At the historic Sixth & I synagogue in Chinatown, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington laid out an arresting tribute to Geri Allen with a band that included pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Ben Williams, alto saxophonist Tia Fuller and vocalist Charenée Wade. Opening with two pieces from Feed The Fire, Allen’s collaboration with vocalist Betty Carter, the quintet evoked both Carter (with Wade adopting her punchy scat on “Feed The Fire”) and Allen (with Carrington, Williams and Evans raising the specter of her elastic approach to rhythm). A subsequent performance of Allen’s “Dolphy’s Dance” demonstrated something this writer hadn’t quite grasped before: Evans’ heavy pianistic debt to Allen. Evans was a bit trepidatious as he began his solo on her challenging harmonic structure. As he settled in, though, he was a tidal wave, bringing in clanging chords whose percussive power almost concealed his remarkable voice. Williams, in the meantime, was the one player at ease with the harmonic equations from the get-go, an example of his sterling virtuosity.

This handful of acts was a tiny sampling of the full festival, which featured about 170 performances. And while each wasn’t quite on par with these spectacles, the sheer volume was sufficient for the DCJF to reach a magnificent new peak in its history. That augurs well for success, both creative and commercial, in the future.


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