Arts Desk

The DC Jazz Festival Slate is Full of Gems, But Relies Too Heavily on Standbys

SupernovaTwo years ago, I defended the DC Jazz Festival's penchant for repeat headliners. However, while I'm attempting to reserve judgment, some things have recently happened to throw that penchant into starker relief.

First, the truncating of this year's festival to six days. There's less time in which to spread the programming out, and therefore the gang of "usual suspects" is more conspicuous.

Second, there's the boldness—and success—of the programming choices that Jason Moran has made at the Kennedy Center. KenCen, federally funded and catering to the button-down Washington elite, has every reason to play it safe and sterile in their jazz bookings, and they're doing anything but. It gives some of the other jazz bookings in town something to live up to.

And then there's the increasing traffic of jazz acts in D.C., and of the favorite festival headliners in particular. An annual, major jazz festival should promise something rare and special. Roy Hargrove (who performed a pre-festival "warm up" show Saturday night at the Hamilton) is one of the best trumpeters on Earth, and reports are that he was at the top of his game on Saturday. But last year, I saw him perform three times in D.C., excluding the festival (and the late-night jam sessions he loves to frequent when he's in D.C.). He's already played here at least once in 2014. And he's been in nearly every DCJF lineup since the festival began in 2005.

Ditto Cyrus Chestnut, who performs Wednesday night at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, but just two months ago did a stint at Blues Alley and has appeared several times in past festivals. Marc Cary is a D.C. native, so his repeat appearances are somewhat expected, but he headlined the CapitalBop "mega-fest" in 2012; headlined at Bohemian Caverns during the 2013 festival, and this year, appears in three (!) different performances. As in Hargrove's case, brilliance does not preclude saturation. Brass-a-Holics, though not such frequent visitors outside the DCJF, are nonetheless annual standbys for the festival; putting them next to the other standbys drives that regularity home.

Paquito d'Rivera's regularity gets more leeway, considering that he's the festival's artistic director, and he's apparently trying something a little bit different in his concert at the Hamilton this year. I'll give a pass for Snarky Puppy, too, which appeared as an opening act at last year's festival and this year graduates to headliner: a worthy cause for repetition.

The number of repeaters this year, coupled with the number of repeats they've each racked up—with not a whole lot of time in between—is enough to make me a little nervous about the 2014 DCJF. Has it gone stale? Will it?

Well, maybe, and maybe not. The Hamilton and Sixth & I shows represent the core of the DCJF, and if some of its lineups inspire a bit of ennui, others offer more variety and fresh blood. On Thursday night, pianist Helen Sung (who's experiencing something of a career high, with a highly acclaimed major-label album and great festival bookings everywhere) performs; opening for her is Tia Fuller, the exciting young saxophonist who's shaping up to be the best straightahead alto player of her generation. (Were I asked to provide alternatives to the repeaters, Fuller would have been at the top of my list.) The Sunday night festival closers are trumpeter Etienne Charles (another festival vet, but it's been a while and his profile has been rising recently) and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa (one of the most progressive musical thinkers of the contemporary era) are set to play.

And let's not overlook the partner presenters that make up a large component of the festival. Bohemian Caverns has a splendid six-night lineup, in which local piano virtuosos Allyn Johnson and Dwayne Adell alternate with cutting-edge pianist Andy Milne and his Dapp Theory ensemble; razor-sharp Puerto Rican saxophonist David Sánchez (for two nights); and sax great Gary Bartz. Atlas is presenting its jazz curator, saxophonist Brad Linde, in two of his newest projects (one of which, Underwater Ghost, received a rave review in the New York Times earlier this year). East River Jazz Fest, if I may backtrack a bit on my Marc Cary criticism, is offering the pianist in two extremely different contexts, one a dance party and the other a career retrospective. And in addition to a "block party" (which includes the third Cary performance), CapitalBop is offering what may be the two most flat-out exciting shows of the festival: a "cutting contest" between three of the finest pianists on the East Coast (Orrin Evans, Lafayette Gilchrist, Allyn Johnson), and a performance by the endlessly imaginative AACM saxophonist Matana Roberts.

All of which is reason to hope for another stellar festival. Regular readers will know that I am a strong supporter of the DCJF. I believe in it. I want to see it live up to its vast potential. So, while I am indeed a bit worried as we go into this year's iteration, the DC Jazz Festival has ample means and opportunity to prove me wrong.

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