DC Jazz Festival: Perfection at the Atlas
"Perfect" is a word you usually want to avoid in music reviews. That goes double for reviews of concerts, and triple for jazz concerts. As Artie Shaw (among others) observed, musicians who don't make mistakes aren't playing at the edge of their ability; they're not taking chances.
One could never accuse the Rodney Richardson Trio of playing it so safe. And their single set at the Atlas last night wasn't perfect—but it achieved as many moments of perfection as this edition of the DC Jazz Festival is likely to encounter in one concert.
Case in point: Playing a Frank Zappa tune is almost inherently bold, given how complex Zappa's stuff is. "Little Umbrellas" is no exception, but the band made short work of it, burning through its Chopin-based melody and pinwheeling solos effortlessly. Preceding that was "3:45 AM," a flawless convergence of tricky theory (repeating patterns of 3-, 4-, and 5-beat measures, which drummer Larry Ferguson handled with ridiculous ease) and wonderfully evocative mood all around. Richardson, on top, sounded shrouded and beautiful; organist Todd Simon added a gauzy but thick layer of drone harmony underneath. Ferguson ebbed and flowed beautifully: His careful, delicate cymbal work blossomed into denser, lusher rolls and wider cymbal and snare cymbal sounds.
Then came Lena Seikaly. D.C.'s most splendid young vocalist joined the trio for a simultaneously punchy and sotto voce arrangement of "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning." Now the lead, Seikaly reined in her distinctive full-throated voice to complement the delicate strains of organ and guitar. The Stranglers' "Golden Brown" was so natural a setting for both the groove of the trio and the nuances of Seikaly's singing that it was hard to remember that the tune wasn't written and arranged especially for them (particularly after Richardson's impassioned, sometimes stinging solo.)
Seikaly's finest moment, though, came by virtue of Beck. "Tropicalia," his oddball Brazilian tune, is a favorite set piece of Seikaly's, and here she cannily used her blend of emotion, rhythmic play, and precise diction to egg each member of the trio onto bouncy, adventurous plains. Richardson took advantage of his own melodic gifts; Simon cheerfully (if focusedly) took on the Brazilian rhythmic decides; and Ferguson doubled down on the relentless but easy mastery of the time he'd so accentuated in "3:45 AM."
And yet there were some unsteady moments, too "Sunshine Superman" was a little kitschy, played at a '60s lounge tempo and groove such that you could nearly see the a-go-go dancers behind them. But after the solos, which transformed into tasty, greasy blues. solos, the return to the head no longer sounded peppy, but furious. Weirder was the take on Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun." Richardson's arrangement was a jaunty waltz, so thoroughly incongruous with Chris Cornell's bleak lyrics that even attempting to critique it is a bafflle. Nevertheless, it was hard not to be taken in by its bizarre snappiness.
Also, it must be noted that the microphones badly malfunctioned, turning on and off without warning. While introducing Seikaly, the soft-spoken Richardson found himself shouting to be heard beyond the dead mic, only to then have it spark back to life in mid-shout.
Not big enough deficits to ruin a stellar set, however. Its finest moments drove home the magnificent set of talent that D.C. has to offer to jazz fans—and how much of a drag it is to lose Richardson.