Arts Desk

Washington Renaissance Orchestra’s “In the Tradition” was a Triumph of Passion and Craft

washington renaissance orchestraWhen I called In the Tradition, Friday night's Washington Renaissance Orchestra concert at the Lincoln Theatre, "the D.C. jazz occasion of the year," I wasn't being hyperbolic. The show was magisterial, an emotional powerhouse built with superlative work from 17 of the best musicians the District has to offer. It was a complete triumph.

Though the concert was organized and led by drummer Nasar Abadey, the music of In the Tradition was very much the vision of pianist Allyn Johnson. It featured his arrangements of several jazz repertory tunes and an original tune by Baltimore-based Navasha Daya (the evening's featured clear-voiced and soul-sodden vocalist). The show was capped by two of Johnson's originals, including the extended "Freedom Warrior's Suite." The arrangements, including the standard "The Moontrane," were magnificent—detailed displays of large-ensemble writing, with intricate, carefully discrete parts for every section and fine soloist spaces.

The latter included monstrous craftsmen: Saxophonists Antonio Parker (alto), Elijah Balbed (tenor), and Whit Williams (baritone); trombonists Reginald Cyntje and Dupor Georges; and trumpeters Thad Wilson and Tom Williams all turned in fiery, blues-savvy performances throughout the concert. (Not to mention the rhythm section of Johnson, Abadey, and bassist James King, who did beautiful bow work on the John Coltrane medley "Some Other Blues/Mr. Day."

The performances had incredible emotional power, too. Whenever Daya took the stage (as she did on four tunes), the passion with which she sang hit the audience with a wallop. Abadey acknowledged as much when introducing her for the evening's closer, Johnson's "Four Voices": "Buckle in," he said, "this one's emotional." Still, the heart of the concert was its penultimate number, the aforementioned "Freedom Warrior's Suite." Its African-inspired percussion began the piece with a kind of raw but disciplined power; its use of piling-up horn figures quickly added pathos, and a counterpoint break for Balbed and tenor-mate Brian Settles evoked the controversy brought by each of the suite's four dedicatees: Nelson Mandela, Maya Angelou, Malcolm X, and "the Messiah." Its peak, however, came with a slow lament that featured Tom Williams on flugelhorn. It was mournful and cathartic, yet haunting.

The one complaint I'd register for the performance is one that nobody onstage could have helped: the sound. The cavernous Lincoln Theater was simply not designed for an acoustic jazz ensemble of any size, nor was its amplification system. At times (notably on "The Moontrane") it melted the ensemble into a singular blare, and the details in Johnson's arrangements got a bit lost. And yet, because the ensemble played its heart out, the messages came through nonetheless.

Both the concert program and emcee Willard Jenkins assured the house that the evening was being recorded for posterity. With any luck, it'll be made available to the public. As far as I'm concerned, that can't happen soon enough.

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