DC Jazz Festival: The Lofty Ambitions of CapitalBop’s MegaFest
Saturday was the day of CapitalBop's 11-hour MegaFest at 629 New York Ave. NW. Unable to attend the full event, I instead stopped in every couple of hours to get a sense of it and enjoy the goings-on. Here are my impressions of each visit.
3:49 p.m. The setup here is pretty neat. It's a huge open loft space on the third floor, barefaced, aged wood floors, with clothiers, jewelry, and a photography exhibit well placed on the left side of the room and a refreshments table on the right. Onstage is the Jazz Academy Youth Combo, a quintet of high school-age students (Joseph Deng, tenor saxophone; Austin Yuan, alto saxophone; Jack Gruber, piano; Sam Levine, bass; Jordan Wolff, drums) playing a straightforward hard bop rendition of Mingus' "Haitian Fight Song" looks earnest, focused, but terrified. Still, they sound good, and their director Paul Carr seems supremely confident in them.
CapitalBop's Gio Russonello says they've sold about 100 tickets and expect double or triple that, all told. But here at the start, not unexpectedly, the audience is thin. But it bears noting that there's no air conditioning here—on a 91-degree day. It will cool off later, but will it matter in the crush of bodies they're expecting in here?
The joint is starting to jump. There are fans scattered around the third floor space; it's actually doing quite a bit to alleviate the heat. The atmosphere is beginning to really become special, and it's not just the music. Russonello, coming up to send off the Youth combo and introduce the between-sets DJ, is a very confident MC. More to the point, he's a great show producer, dashing off immediately to tend to something else (or, more likely from his stride, a half-dozen something elses). He and Luke Stewart have done tremendous work here.
On the second floor, the film has ended and almost immediately afterward, the "Jazz and Hip-Hop" panel has begun. I was expecting more of an aesthetic discussion, but DJ 2-Tone Jones gets the ball rolling on a discussion of comparative social histories instead. Specifically, he's talking about the musical forms' origins as escapism from terrible conditions for African Americans. Jazz was born out of the end of reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow, then became popular music during the Great Depression; hip-hop, from the era of urban decay and the destruction of inner-city social programs during the Reagan Administration. Bobby Hill agrees, noting that it took the impoverished life of the South Bronx to make graffiti an art form and phonographs an instrument of improvisation: Like the cultural amalgamation of New Orleans, it was an opportunity to fashion something new out of the pre-existing tools. I'm impressed. A large crowd for this!
You can hear the Mad Curious trio from across the street. But inside, it's really happening. A good-sized crowd fills the space, most of them listening intently to an impossibly funky and imaginative bass solo by Tarus Mateen. Faces in the audience are illuminated by lamps from the pop-up shops. That said, they also add to the heat in the room which is once again stifling. The fans are having minimal effect; even opening the windows is useless in this full room.
The only cool thing in the room is Brian Settles' cerebral sax tone, and even that sets to a boil once Mateen and drummer/leader Lenny Robinson really start swinging. Robinson once again proves that he has the groovingest cymbals in town, and Settles and Mateen look like they're hard at work just following him.
Kush Abadey, here with both his parents, was the drummer in the previous band, Elijah Balbed's trio. He tells me that it was a great gig, even with the heat. "it might have added to the passion," he says.
Sweat illuminates Settles face as he chomps on this heavy-duty solo, now shrieking lustily against Robinson and Mateen's powerful funk. Once they get going, Mad Curious takes no prisoners.
The crowd has thinned out surprisingly little since 9. It's reduced enough that fans and open windows have more effect, but that effect can't be great for the unrestrained dancers on the floor, working it to the DJ's '80s R&B tunes. One guy standing next to me is jammin' while he fans himself with a festival flyer. This room is sweltering, but it's filled with people who don't care. Young people. It's got the feel of a show at the Black Cat—or d.c. space circa 1986.
Russonello takes the stage to thank the DJ and introduce the second set of Marc Cary's Cosmic Indigenous. "We're CapitalBop. Check us out," he says. "We'll be doing this...indefinitely."
Cosmic Indigenous is a septet: Cary on keys; his 19-year-old son Ahmad on laptop; Ron Sutton, Jr, on alto; Igmar Thomas on trumpet; Sameer Gupta on drums; Daniel Moreno on percussion; and Awa Sangho on vocals. The music, to give the lazy critic's description, is essentially Fela Kuti meets Agharta-period Miles Davis. More specifically, it used complex polyrhythms; exotic harmonies; and go-go. Generous amounts of go-go.
Which translates to groove and groove and groove. Here before me are the D.C. hipster kids who are so renowned/ridiculed for standing stock-still at concerts...and they're shaking their asses like nobody's business. Mateen and Settles join the band on stage for a number. "In the spirit of the great music that we call jazz, we're gonna go all in right now," Cary announces. "We got nine people on the stage; we're gonna make something together." And they do: a deliriously layered rhythmic piece that's nonetheless surprisingly minimal. Much of the time it's just the rhythm section and Sangho.
Unless the backstage is a disaster—and Stewart and Russonello suggest that there weren't many fires to put out—MegaFest is a success. Guys, you've found your calling.