What to See at This Weekend’s Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival
Today begins the second biggest jazz festival in the region. It's a three-day gala of music: performances, master classes, panels, even competitions. And it all happens under one roof, The Hilton Rockville, so that going from one great jazz event to the next can be as simple as crossing the hall. Highlights below.
Friday, Feb. 15
The festival actually gets underway at 2:30 p.m.; if you're reading this, however, you're not going to get there until later. A good starting point, then, is the Elijah Balbed Quartet. Balbed is a sleek-toned tenor saxophonist from D.C., young but enormously popular and in demand among musicians. When he takes the lead of his own band, it's perfectly clear why. He performs at 6 p.m. in the MAJF Club.
At 7 p.m. on the Ronnie Wells Main Stage is pianist Orrin Evans, a strong, mostly straightahead jazz pianist. I say "mostly" because Evans has a proclivity for surprises, and strong chops in music that's both heavy in African rhythms and can venture into freeform. However, this evening he's got saxophonist Tim Warfield sitting in, a good indication that it'll be mainstream jazz on the Main Stage.
The big show of the night, however, is the soulful singer Gregory Porter. Unquestionably a jazz singer in phrasing and technique, Porter—known for his trademark, wraparound hat—makes clear that he has formidable power that would serve him well in either traditional gospel music or the full-on soul of someone like Bill Withers. Hear him on the Ronnie Wells Main Stage at 8:30 p.m.
Saturday, Feb. 16
Saturday's festival events begin at 9 a.m. with the Jazz Band Competition, a contest between bands from 11 high schools in Maryland, Virginia, Michigan, and New Jersey. They may be kids, but these are cutthroat affairs between serious young musicians who are hungry for the possibilities that things like a high school jazz competition can open up for them in their future endeavors (and believe it or not, there are many). The bands play the first round in the atrium until 2:30 p.m., when the first, second, and third place winners from last year perform; this year's finals begin at 5 p.m. on the Main Stage.
These are followed by a 7 p.m. performance by pianist Larry Willis, a magnificent and tremendously respected bebop piano player, who leads a stellar quintet. In addition to his frequent collaborator, trombonist Steve Davis (who gives a master class earlier in the day), Willis' band includes the great local players Steve Novosel (bass), Joe Ford (tenor sax), and drummer Billy Williams.
After this is a good time to wander around the festival and check in on all the other good stuff on offer. D.C.-area singers will be in particularly good supply, with Anthony Compton in the MAJF Club and an all-female ensemble headed by vocalist Sharon Clark on the Main Stage. Also on hand, though, is organist Greg Hatza in the atrium; organ is a sort of mini-theme for this year's festival.
That's realized in the biggest show of this whole big MAJF affair: the legendary Dr. Lonnie Smith, who takes the Ronnie Wells Main Stage at 10 p.m. Smith plays a demented, voodoo soul-jazz on his Hammond, a bit like Jimi Hendrix on the keys. He's got an aura of mystery and darkness in his music that's deeply compelling. This one can't be missed.
Sunday, Feb. 17
Where Saturday belongs to high schools, Sunday belongs to local colleges. Two bands from American University—the student big band, and the faculty ensemble—play in the atrium at 2 and 4 p.m., respectively. They are followed at 5 p.m. by the Howard University Jazz Ensemble, the cream of the crop at the area's most prestigious university jazz studies program, directed by revered educator Fred Irby III.
That said, there's another act at 4 p.m. that you should try to catch at least part of. The Cookers—or as I call them, the All-Should-Have-Been-Stars Septet, perform on the Main Stage, featuring brilliant but unsung performers like tenor saxophonist Billy Harper, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, and drummer Billy Hart. Hart, incidentally, is a D.C. native, and also appears at 2 p.m. in a "Before and After" blindfold test for JazzTimes magazine. It's an always fascinating opportunity to hear a master give insights into great jazz recordings new and old.
At 10 p.m. yet another stellar organist plays. Joey DeFrancesco is the son of organ legend "Papa John" DeFrancesco; Joey shares his father's facility on the keys, as well as his remarkably able singing voice—but with a younger man's perspective that allowed him to do a striking interpretation of Michael Jackson's music a couple years ago. DeFrancesco hits on the Ronnie Wells Main Stage.