Our Top Picks for the DC Jazz Festival
Tuesday, June 24
It's awfully hard to find a reason not to recommend Allyn Johnson for the opening night of the festival—but then again, why would you even search for one? The evening represents the capstone on Johnson's June residency at Bohemian Caverns, where he's spent every Tuesday in solo piano performance. (He's also been recording his performances, which will soon be reworked as his first live album.) It includes both standards and original compositions by the maestro, whose writing prowess is at a peak, as evidenced by his 2013 album The Truth and his astonishing tunes and arrangements at last weekend's "In the Tradition" concert at the Lincoln Theatre. As for Johnson's piano chops, if you don't already know about those, you just haven't been paying attention.
Allyn Johnson performs at 8 and 10 p.m. at Bohemian Caverns, 2001 Eleventh Street NW. $10.
Wednesday, June 25
If you're looking for a poster child for the jazz of tomorrow, i.e. the stuff that mixes in the tradition, incredibly contemporary ideas, and a mashup of the music that the rising generation grew up on, you could do a hell of a lot worse—and not very much better—than Snarky Puppy (top). Funk, soul, and rock are all on the front lines for this Brooklyn (by way of the University of North Texas) ensemble, with burning guitar and heavily processed horns mixing with a small army of manic percussion. They've also got quite a generous helping of electronic music in their bag of tricks, but insofar as electronica goes, what Snarky Puppy does is surprisingly retro. Put it this way: They're more Harold Faltermeyer and '80s Miles Davis than, say, Aphex Twin or Daft Punk. This all adds up to a new dimension of jazz fusion; it might even be fair to suggest that Snarky Puppy is searching for a new idea of just what the jazz tradition is—and they're onto something, too.
Snarky Puppy performs at 7:30 at The Hamilton, 14th and F Streets NW. $35.
Thursday, June 26
Once upon a time in Harlem, the best kind of finishing school a young (or old, for that matter) pianist could have was a thing called a "cutting contest." You'd put two or more piano players in a room or on a bandstand, each with their own instrument; call a tune, or a form, for them to jam on; then watch the pianists face off, trading 12-, eight-, or four-bar sections and trying their damnedest to outdo the other guy. Even the friendliest of these competitions were often brutal. Cutting contests were actually a staple of many early jazz centers, New Orleans included, and could happen on any instrument. But it's the spirit of the Harlem stride piano cutting contests that are evoked in Thursday night's three-way face-off. Philadelphia's Orrin Evans, Baltimore's Lafayette Gilchrist, and D.C.'s Allyn Johnson meet for a Battle of the Eighty-Eights. All of them are extraordinary talents and have honed their skills razor-sharp; like the old-time masters, they all know and respect each other personally and professionally. But that doesn't mean any one of them should be expected to give any quarter to the others.
The three-piano cutting contest takes place at 8:30 p.m. at Union Arts, 411 New York Avenue NE. $25.
Friday, June 27
It says something, surely, that when the legendary rock power-trio Cream broke up in 1968, two of its three members went in for jazz explorations. Bassist Jack Bruce worked with guitar great John McLaughlin and briefly joined Tony Williams Lifetime, one of the premier architects of jazz fusion. On the other hand, drummer Ginger Baker (above), even when he was considered the, ahem, cream of the rock 'n' roll crop, always regarded himself as a jazz drummer. His major project after Cream was a fusion group of his own, Ginger Baker's Air Force; he moved to Nigeria, where he sat in for Fela Kuti in Fela's own Africa 70 band; was an acknowledged mentor to Billy Cobham, arguably the most important drummer to emerge from the fusion era; and frequently collaborated with the likes of Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden. He's a jazz drummer, all right, and this year has released a new jazz CD entitled Why? that swings like hell, but has all the rhythmic edge you always knew would come with a Ginger Baker record.
Ginger Baker plays at 8 p.m. at The Howard Theatre, 620 T Street NW. $42.50-$80.
Saturday, June 28 – afternoon
Since its inception, the DC Jazz Festival's signature event has been its outdoor extravaganza performance. It was held for several years at the Sylvan Amphitheater on the National Mall; when the Sylvan closed for renovation, the DCJF moved to the riverfront. Last year they hit the Washington Kastles Stadium in Southwest; this year, it's Yards Park in Southeast (between the baseball stadium and Navy Yard). And they've got quite the lineup brewing down there for a two-day program. The best of the lineup, however, is Saturday's. On the bill are the great New Orleans brass man Trombone Shorty, playing his postmodern combination of New Orleans jazz and street funk and hip hop; the Robert Glasper Experiment, in which possibly the most dexterous pianist of his generation explores the connections between classic jazz, contemporary jazz, and the cutting edge of soul, hip-hop, and R&B; and the singer Gregory Porter, easily the hottest jazz vocalist currently going, with generous helpings of soul in the beautiful self-written songs he sings. Lots of soul, if you hadn't picked up the pattern, for this afternoon in the park.
It starts at 2 p.m. at The Yards Park, 355 Water Street SE. $66.80.
Saturday, June 28 – evening
The alto saxophonist Matana Roberts (above) is currently engaged in the most ambitious, adventurous, bewildering, and fascinating large-scale jazz project in recent memory. COIN COIN is a saga of her personal, family, and cultural history, tracing the line from bondage in the American South to the radical black politics of the 20th and 21st centuries. The sound can and does go everywhere, from spoken-word recitation to hard swinging post-bop to tender balladry to raging avant-garde to classical motifs to electronic chaos. It's an approach that Roberts has dubbed "panoramic sound quilting," a description that reinforces that idea of family lineage and tradition. All of it, of course, is heavily experimental, part and parcel of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) with which Roberts is associated. There may be no more exciting single performance in this year's festival lineup.
Matana Roberts and her COIN COIN sextet perform (with opening act the Tarus Mateen Quartet) at 8 p.m. at The Fridge, 516 Eighth Street SE. $25.
Sunday, June 29
Gary Bartz did his time in New York, making some of the finest and most politically tinged music of the late '60s and early '70s with his fiery alto saxophone and deep roots in African music as well as bop and free jazz. He's also made some of the finest music out there as a longtime collaborator with pianist McCoy Tyner. But Bartz is a Baltimore native, and now he spends a great deal of time there—yet he doesn't often perform in the DMV anymore. Which makes his appearance at the close of the DC Jazz Festival, as our vice president says, a big fucking deal. What else is there to say, really, on that score?
Gary Bartz performs at 8 and 10 p.m. at Bohemian Caverns, 2001 Eleventh Street NW. $28 advance, $35 day of show.