Arts Desk

What to See at the 2014 Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival (Which Starts Tonight)

majfThe motto for the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival, “Standing Up for Real Jazz,” smacks of rigid definition—the Jazz-as-Ideology school. And admittedly, that is the modus operandi of festival curator Paul Carr within and without the festival. Yet inside the small maze of rooms on the first floor of the Hilton Rockville Hotel, Carr doesn't just wave the banner of purism: He builds a case for it. When all is said and done, you still may not buy into the “real jazz” dogma. But then again, you don’t have to buy it to enjoy it.

Owing to that location, the MAJF, now in its fifth go-’round, is laid out less like a festival than a trade conference—with various master classes and live Q-and-A's acting as breakout sessions, the mainstage and MAJF Clubs as plenary sessions, and vendors selling food and merchandise (and offering musical exhibitions) on tables and in nooks between. It's not the most likely atmosphere for a jazz festival, perhaps, but it does cluster a wide variety of events together in a space that's easy to wander in between.

Here are some highlights.

Friday, Feb. 14
The first day alone features 21 different performances of solid, swinging, straight-ahead jazz, running the gamut from middle-school combos to acclaimed veteran headliners–—the latter in most cases being singers, the special emphasis of this year’s festival. But there's a strong likelihood that you're either working, or at home on account of weather; in either case, you're probably not going to the MAJF until the evening. And that's OK! Because that's when the good stuff starts cranking up.

If all else fails, get there for the 7 p.m. performance by Giacomo Gates, a unique baritone singer, at the Ronnie Wells Main Stage. He is a belter, not a crooner, with a rhythmic sense that absolutely begs for the "vocalese" stylings he brings in. Which is to say that Gates hits the lyrics with the melodic accents of a great horn player, creating a feeling of scat singing, even in his straight-up delivery of the words. He even throws in some mouth-made percussion effects that are simultaneously hip and charming.

callahanGates is neither easy to tear oneself away from, nor easy to follow. Nevertheless, at 7:30 p.m. in the MAJF Club comes the husky-voiced Baltimore vocalist Kristin Callahan (shown at right), whose strong instrument belies a gentle touch with her material—standards, by and large, with a specialty for ballads. In fact, she can make even strong swingers sound like tender ballads, which is not a bad approach for what is after all a Valentine's Day performance.

The other can't-miss performance of the night is the closer, a 10 p.m. appearance on the Ronnie Wells Main Stage by Freddy Cole. Yes, he's Nat "King"'s brother, and Natalie's uncle, but Freddy has determinedly forged his own path with a slightly gruff voice, a pretty way with a love song, and the kind of dapper, low-key elegance you might associate with the Benny Carter tradition of jazz presentation.

Saturday, Feb. 15
The MAJF jazz competitions take place on Saturday, and much of what's going on at the Hilton, especially in the early part of the day, is the performance entries for those competitions. Especially prominent are the high school jazz bands from around the region, who will be playing in succession at the hotel atrium—which you can't miss when you walk into the hotel—from the morning until the late afternoon. They're not exactly the big names, but they're surprisingly good, skillful musicians, and you might even hear some really fresh takes on the music.

In the early part of the afternoon it's fun to wander through the merch tables, and perhaps in and out of some of the master classes that will be held throughout the building. But at 2 p.m., saxophone legend Gary Bartz will be giving an interview to WPFW's Larry Appelbaum in the Billy Taylor Room. It's a truly fascinating combination, as Appelbaum is one of the area's most knowledgeable and intelligent scholars of the music and Bartz walks a compelling line between reverence for the tradition and bull-in-a-china-shop.

Lena SeikalyAt 3 p.m. on the Ronnie Wells Main Stage is one of the peaks of the festival's vocal showcases: a trio of D.C. singers joined by pianist Chris Grasso, the king of D.C. vocal accompanists. Lena Seikaly (shown at left) is a beloved favorite of D.C. jazz and of Washington City Paper, who will be performing from the Great American Songbook. Dick Smith is a local institution, a former Washington Pigskin and the current curator of Westminster Presbyterian Church's Jazz Night, who's also a stellar vocalist; he will pay tribute to the great singer Billy Eckstine. Alas, Sharón Clark is all too often neglected in these pages; she's a longtime D.C. performer with an enormous but velvet-coated instrument, which she wields in a manner drawn from the Sarah Vaughan techniques but with a gospel fervor as well.

Actually, the action is on the Main Stage from then on. At 5 p.m. are the finals for the High School Band Competition, which is always quite fun and an opportunity to hear some of the classic big band arrangements. That's followed at 7 p.m. with the quartet of the aforementioned Gary Bartz, then at 8:30 p.m. with a "trombone summit" of
"Kuumba" Frank Lacy, Steve Turre, and Delfeayo Marsalis, each a worthy performer in his own right and therefore a smorgasbord when brought together. Then, at 10 p.m., is perhaps the most heavily publicized of the festival's acts: the Christian McBride trio, led by a man who is surely one of the greatest living virtuosos of the upright bass (and featuring two young protegees, pianist Christian Sands and drummer Ulysses Owens Jr.).

And, if you're staying for all that, there's probably good reason to stick around for the midnight jam session with the Wes Biles Trio in the MAJF Club, where a good number of the headliners you've just seen might well pop up for some more music.

Sunday, Feb. 16
Bobby Watson, a great saxophonist currently based in Kansas City, makes frequent appearances in D.C. and at the Mid Atlantic Jazz Festival. He does not as often collaborate with the Howard University Jazz Ensemble, the big band of D.C.'s most prestigious university. In this case, though, they'll be on the Ronnie Wells Main Stage at 1 p.m.

The beautiful trumpet sound of D.C. stalwart Kenny Rittenhouse is on display at 2 p.m. at the MAJF Club with his Septet, which Rittenhouse has led in two wondrous albums so far.

reginald-cThe Reginald Cyntje Group (Cyntje shown at right) will perform on the Main Stage at 7 p.m.; while the program for their concert hasn't been announced, odds are that they will play some of the music from trombonist Cyntje's forthcoming third album, The Elements of Life; having heard some of the music I can't recommend this performance strongly enough. It's Cyntje's finest work yet.

Finally, at 10 p.m. on the Ronnie Wells Main Stage comes the festival impresario himself. Paul Carr performs on tenor saxophone with his frequent collaborator, pianist Bruce Barth, as well as vibraphonist Steve Nelson. They pay tribute to piano great Mulgrew Miller, who passed away suddenly last spring and whom all three musicians have worked with. Also, ticketholders will receive a copy of Carr's most recent CD, Straight Ahead Soul—another good reason to be there.

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