Arts Desk

The DC Jazz Festival, Reviewed

Gregory_PorterLast week, I prefaced the DC Jazz Festival with a piece that criticized its overreliance on standby acts that we see every year (or all year round).  Now that the festival's over, you're surely waiting with bated breath to find out: Did it stay fresh? Did it prove me wrong?

Yes and no.

At its best, this year's DC Jazz Festival was absolutely at the top of its game. Let there be no doubt, for example, about the Jazz at the Capitol Riverfront program. The stage setup at the edge of the river on the east side of Yards Park was beautifully placed and optimally designed. The sound was fantastic, the lawn seating superb, and the vendors excellent. And the music was the best part. In particular, Gregory Porter (pictured) delivered a luminescent set that got the crowd singing along, dancing, shouting requests, and—in a first (for me) among all the DCJF's outdoor concerts—demanding an encore. (They got it.) The Robert Glasper Experience delivered, too, with slinky improvisations that combined with wonderfully weird, hip-hop-and-electronica-infused covers of the likes of Daft Punk's "Get Lucky." Casey Banjamin's vocodered vocal is as distinctive, in its way, as Porter's. Trombone Shorty then rocked the place with a go-go twist.

Last night's closing performance, with alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa opening for trumpeter Etienne Charles, was superb as well.

The partner presenters did excellent work throughout the festival. Vernard Gray is doing something special for the District east of the Anacostia River. As always, the Caverns brought in a ferocious wave of programming, especially in the realm of piano: The three-night streak of Allyn Johnson, Andy Milne, and Dwayne Adell (probably the finest virtuoso I've ever seen perform) was astonishing.

CapitalBop, meantime, may have outdone them all with its bookings. It had a piano feast of its own with the splendid three-piano cutting contest on Thursday. Matana Roberts and her COIN COIN sextet, on Saturday, were perhaps the best thing in the festival; I had high hopes that were all met, with moment after moment that made me say, "My God—what if I had missed this?" (It must be said, though, that opener Tarus Mateen was a lesser experience. That's not because of his music; it was just a very poor match of a highly textured and complex set with the shoddy acoustics of the Fridge on Barracks Row.) Reports of its Block Party on Friday evening (which I did not attend) have been nothing but glowing.

But what about those repeat headliners?

I was swayed by one of them. Brass-a-Holics are surprisingly low on the brass, with three horns in an eight-piece band (four, I suppose, if you count the drummer's cymbals). But they certainly dominated, juxtaposing hot funk with organ-based soul and bebop jazz—the arrangements included heads of standards like "Donna Lee" and "Work Song." And I wasn't the only one floored. The house at the Hamilton was absolutely packed to the rafters, and the dance floor at the front of the bandstand filled up quickly with gyrating patrons of all ages and ethnicities. The Brass-a-Holics are party catalysts, shall we say, and saying that a festival shouldn't open on such festive terms is a tough sell. (Snarky Puppy also acquitted themselves magnificently, but that was no surprise.)

Cyrus Chestnut was not so exciting. He and his quartet did perfectly fine and energetically at Sixth & I, just as well as in his various past festival performances. But with one exception—an inspired, abstracted take on "Audrey"—the Brubeck Reimagined program did not overwhelm in its level of re-imagination. I had held out hopes for Paquito D'Rivera, whom the Washington Post had promised would perform "tunes inspired by some of his earliest childhood memories" along with selections from last year's Song for Maura release. When word came that he would instead do a third iteration of his Jazz Meets the Classics program, I found an alternative.

It really is time for a rollover on some of these performers and performances—and that's not to say they should just be substituted with the other standbys (Antonio Hart, Roberta Gambarini, Anat Cohen). Good and even great as those performers all are, the DC Jazz Festival could use some new blood along the lines of Mahanthappa, Roberts, and Porter. This year's festival "preview" star Roy Hargrove provided a trumpet virtuoso presence, but so might any number of others. Jeremy Pelt, Ambrose Akinmusire, Terrell Stafford, Ingrid Jensen, Duane Eubanks, and Takuya Koreda could all serve well in that capacity: straightahead players with a taste for adventure and a rising currency in the jazz world. (Charles is a good choice, too, but that would, again, necessitate repetition.) Alternatively, every fall, New York hosts the Festival of New Trumpet (FONT) Music, which is full of undiscovered horn talents deserving of a shot at places like the D.C. Jazz Festival.

That last, of course, is a purely pie-in-the-sky suggestion. Hargrove, Chestnut, et al. return so often to the festival because they're crowd-pleasers. The Hamilton routinely sold out last week; Sixth & I was not quite full for Chestnut on Wednesday, but it was close. Producer Charlie Fishman and artistic director D'Rivera have established something that works—which no doubt pleases the sponsors and the board of directors as well as audiences—and for that reason, they have little incentive to shake it up. But it's also somewhat safe for a genre of music that's supposed to be about taking big risks.

There are also growing complaints from local musicians, who are advertised as part of the festival without receiving any financial support from it. Some say that the increased exposure of that festival marketing has directly led to a financial boost, but others disagree. "None of the local talent gets paid any more than usual for the festival," says one D.C. musician. "I am pro-jazz festival, but I would like to see the wealth spread a little more to the locals."

Nevertheless, there are some savvy and edgy choices being made within the festival's greater orbit. And the good still outweighs the bad, most clearly in terms of engaging a community in both numbers and demographics (not to mention the neighborhood geography). By those standards, and undoubtedly by the standards of the coffers—the standards that make the difference—the DC Jazz Festival was once more a success in 2014. There will continue to be reasons to patronize it in the coming years, and D.C. will continue to do so. So will I.

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