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The DC Jazz Festival is rightly the major local jazz event of the year—but if you’re focused on the local players, it’s the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival that rises to the top of the agenda.
That’s not meant as a slight to what DCJF organizers Willard Jenkins, Sunny Sumter et al. are doing; it’s an important showcase for our hometown scene. But Paul Carr (a prominent member of that scene, not to mention mentor to half of it) puts local players front and center. Sure, Wycliffe Gordon—one of the world’s most celebrated living trombonists—is a headliner, but what he actually headlines is an 18-piece big band drawn from around town. The Vibes Summit, another headline event, includes (OK, fine, Baltimorean) Warren Wolf and a D.C. rhythm section.
And so: Each year, President’s Day weekend is literally your jam, D.C. It’s also your professional development workshop. The MAJF—held annually at the conference venue that is the Hilton Rockville—is structured like a conference. Concerts are scheduled and ticketed in “sessions.” Ancillary events include lectures, panels, Q&A fora, and master classes.
My own experience of this year’s second-day schedule had as its first highlight a class with saxophonist Joel Frahm. Put bluntly, Frahm is an unsung badass. That morning great buzz was trailing his appearance the night before behind singer Jazzmeia Horn. Frahm was ready to talk tech, but couldn’t do so without another display of bravura: an unaccompanied, paint-peeling “Rhythm-a-Ning” that certified his chops.
Then came good advice for the aspirants young and old, in repeatable tidbits: “Steal, steal, steal. It’s all about stealing.” “Show up on time.” “Be in the service of whatever music you’re playing.” “Ears open mouth shut.”
Later in the day, saxophonist Elijah Balbed put in a surprise appearance at a Michael Bowie-led bass master class, throwing in another epigram: “You gotta chase the music down. It’s not gonna come to you.” On the other hand, in the festival’s Billy Taylor Room (think of it as the Humanities Department) came what we might call anti-advice: a story, wrung from bass titan Buster Williams by WPFW’s Rusty Hassan, involving Sarah Vaughan and marijuana. Hilarity ensued. The rest was music.
If the MAJF is a conference, its plenary sessions come in the form of the college ensembles who play in the hotel’s (massively renovated) atrium. Here were two revelations. The first, Boston College’s BC bOp!, contained a harmony vocal section that was so magnificent that we’ll forgive their status being decidedly un-Mid Atlantic.
To that end, though, came the GW Jazz Orchestra, an entirely student-organized ensemble out of Foggy Bottom. This writer chooses to blame the lack of institutional involvement for my never hearing them before—but that was an unfortunate oversight no matter the reason. The ensemble is solid, and the rhythm section crackerjack. Keep your eye out for drummer Jordan Giacoma in particular.
I will take full responsibility for my late coming to another revelation: I have seen gigs advertised here, there, and everywhere for Baltimore alto saxophonist Terry Koger and began kicking myself for missing them with his first notes in the festival’s Club Stage (a small room behind the lobby restaurant). I’m still kicking myself. Koger is an economist. Soloing on “Invitation,” he played with a clear, but not loud, tone and left perhaps more space than he occupied—tinting rather than coloring the tune. He was capable of maximizing, and did so on a jackrabbit take on “Rhythm-a-Ning” (yes, the day’s second version, and also the second altoist of the day to quote “Meet the Flintstones”). But it still managed to attenuate the volume and keep to lyrical ideas. Koger creates an intriguing bubble of hush around him when he plays, perhaps a side effect of his softer sound and the suspense he generates in his spaciousness.
There were more positive experiences than can fit in this space, from altoist Justin Jones (one of Paul’s “Discovery Acts” and the day’s other Flintstones fan) to vocalist Samantha Powell (the made-of-talent vocalist for the high school band competition winner, Newark Academy) to the splendid-as-always work of the aforementioned Vibe Summit rhythm section, pianist Allyn Johnson, bassist Herman Burney, and drummer Lenny Robinson (not to mention the division-of-labor approach taken by the vibists themselves, Wolf, Joe Locke, and Joseph Doubleday). But two more saxophonists deserve special mention, in both cases rediscoveries rather than discoveries. Braxton Cook is no stranger to anyone who’s followed D.C. jazz for the last decade: He’s been wowing us all since he was a teen, and his quartet performance demonstrated a stunning maturation and thoughtfulness.
The other, Tedd Baker, likewise needs no introduction. I heard him take a solo with the Airmen of Note in the atrium during the afternoon. Late at night, he took another as part of the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Orchestra (the ensemble that worked with Gordon). The tunes he soloed on are beside the point: In both cases, he burned like nobody’s business, roaring forth like a dragon with flames of music and leaving you few options but to get out of the way.
It was a powerful reminder that Baker is one of the best—in a seemingly bottomless well of great musicians. Call the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival a strictly regional festival (and since it’s named for a region, you’ll find little argument) but doubt not its value.