DC Jazz Festival: A Post-Mortem
The 2012 DC Jazz Festival landed amid a perfect storm. From the opening of The Hamilton—maybe the best thing ever to happen to the festival, but more on that later—and the reopening of the Howard Theatre to the increasing confidence and imagination of CapitalBop and the accession of Jazz at the Atlas to the proliferation of great local acts, it all came together in an excellent mosaic. This year was the festival's best yet.
There are a number of other reasons for this, too; I haven't even mentioned programming, which included outstanding performances by Randy Weston, Ben Williams, John Scofield, and the Classical Jazz Quartet, as well as the usual DCJF suspects. But there were two particular strengths that deserve special focus.
First, the one I initially hypothesized about: the tightening of the festival's schedule. Fewer days made things denser, with several worthy shows going on at one time, forcing would-be audiences to make hard choices. (I literally had to flip a coin on June 3 to decide between Dianne Reeves at the Howard and Mark Turner at the Atlas.) Frustrating as it was—at least one person involved with the festival disliked having to split the promotion of each night on the calendar—having choices was a good thing. Faced with several options, audiences were going to split across all of them, a something-for-everyone scenario that gave a boost to all of the venues and artists. "Thanks for choosing me out of so much to see at this festival," saxophonist Marcus Strickland noted at Bohemian Caverns Friday night. "I'm gonna check out some of it myself after I finish this gig."
Another success was the consolidation of showcases for local and out-of-town artists. The shows paired compatible acts from each contingent; having Kris Funn and Corner Store open for Tarbaby was extremely sharp, but having vocalist Akua Allrich open for Randy Weston was a masterstroke.
The other strength of this year's festival was its partnership with The Hamilton. The downtown venue contributed a great deal of its own resources for the track of nightly concerts there, and did a solid professional job with the presentations. And having a central hub for their headline acts really did make things easier for audiences, as well as for the festival itself. Staffers tell me that, while the festival wasn't perfect, they've never had to put out fewer fires.
Each year, the festival has at least one banner event at the Kennedy Center, and this year's was truly magnificent. "Jazz Meets the Classics," held in the Concert Hall, featured radiant performances of classical staples, arranged into jazz setpieces, by the Paquito D'Rivera Quintet and the Classical Jazz Quartet. The former expertly soaked the pieces in particular idioms and places—"You'll think that Mozart must have been Cuban," D'Rivera assured the audience, similarly promising that Bach was really from New Orleans, and delivering on both counts. The Classical Jazz Quartet was much statelier, evoking the instrumental lineup (piano, vibraphone, bass, and drums) and classical infusion of The Modern Jazz Quartet. A version of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" (here just "Jesu") couldn't help but swing in the hands of pianist Kenny Barron and bassist Ron Carter, with exquisite-but-tasteful intensity added by vibraphonist Stefon Harris and drummer Lewis Nash. They were perhaps the more imaginative of the two acts, trying novel experiments such as placing "I Got Rhythm" chord changes under one of the Brandenburg Concertos. They were also more nakedly emotional (via a heartrending performance of Barron's "Phantoms"). It was the jewel in this year's crown.
That's a figure of speech, of course; there were many jewels to be found in 2012's event. The Jazz Festival hasn't quite ascended to the level of a great festival. For that, they'll need to shake up their repeat headliners. It has, however, grown into a very good one.