Jamal Gray is everywhere these days: Venues like The Kennedy Center, Songbyrd, and Black Cat; on the radio on WPFW; next weekend at the Funk Parade; or tonight at the Logan Fringe Arts Space. Wherever you may be seeing live local music in 2017, there’s a solid chance that Gray, a D.C. native and oft-described “sonic shaman,” will be the one conjuring and curating the sounds, whether it be funk, jazz, or hip-hop.
Over the past few years, Gray has made a name for himself through his work as the de facto leader of The Nag Champa Jazz and Art Ensemble, creative force in the CMPVTR CLVB electronic production collaborative, and as an aforementioned curator supreme. And it may be through the synergy of his skills as a curator and creator wherein he discovers next level of success.
“I think it’s important to realize that D.C. has a culture right now that consumes so much of music from other places, but is only now starting to, once again, consume music from its native residents,” Gray says, noting the plethora of sold-out big ticket events at the 9:30 Club, U Street Music Hall, Verizon Center, and more. “I’m curating these shows because we have to expand the expectation of performance if we [as local artists] are going to be able to compete with these larger shows.
“There’s so many local performers who have the talent to do this, too. We have schools like the Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts, which as a high school, has trained so many residents of the city in the ability to mix music and other artistic disciplines of performance. So, the talent is there, and when we can use venues like, say, Capital Fringe, we’re able to showcase what makes our music and style as creators and artists so unique. I can put on a show anywhere—a front porch, in [a] bar, wherever. But having opportunities to play this music and curate these sounds around different and new audiences in places I’d never imagine I’d ever be able to showcase, it is definitely inspirational for me and for everyone.”
For the past month, the Logan Fringe Arts Space on the 1300 block of Florida Avenue NE has housed CTRL SPACE COMMAND, a series of events co-curated by Gray and artist/producer St. Clair Castro, which is described as “an immersive series of conceptual performance pieces dissecting mankind’s intrinsic connection to Space, Time, & The Creator. Exploring human interaction through themes of Tribe, Rituals, Abstraction, Architecture and Language utilizing sound, video and movement.”
If that sounds like a mouthful, it’s a lot easier to just listen to Gray’s work, like his recently released mediumrare .001, (released under his alter ego aquatic.gardener—a nod to his Kenilworth-area upbringing). The album, he states, mixes “everyday street soundscapes of D.C. with distorted melodies and rhythms.”
Tonight, the series closes with “Meta: The Evolution of Blackness,” which will feature a lineup of both local and regional talents—musicians, video artists, dancers, and more—“creating scenery through projection mapping and manipulation.”
Gray’s also in the midst of recording a highly anticipated debut album for Nag Champa, with the assistance of members of Paperhaus. He describes the process as “coming along,” and “definitely reflective and in many ways inspired by the curating work” he’s up to these days. “I want the work to feel like it’s coming in movements, in pieces, like Beethoven or something,” he says. “I want to give people not 20 songs at once, but something truly meaningful, in a smaller dose, so that it’s easier to widely spread a specific message and be appreciated by as many people as possible.”
Artists like Wale and Oddisee have spread D.C.’s musical fruits to audiences worldwide, but what separates them from Gray—and ultimately points to where his likely success lies—is his awareness of a relationship between what he’s creating and the past, present, and future of D.C.’s music scene, on a local-to-global level.
“The lessons are all here,” he says. “You can hear the music of a Duke Ellington, the Sun Ras, whose Arkestra Nag Champa played with, and there’s artists like Kokayi, whose work still resonates. I’m influenced by that, and I’m hearing all of the sounds around me right now too. The Den-Mates, what’s happening at the Glow End Theory party at Black Cat, all of that, too. I think that people are ready to hear what’s next, and slowly, surely, and with significant thought and care behind it, I’ll provide it for them.”
CTRL SPACE COMMAND “An Exhibition in Motion” takes place at 8:30 p.m. at the Logan Fringe Arts Space, 1358 Florida Ave. NE. $10-$20.