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The D.C. jazz scene is no more likely than the rest of us to look back on 2016 with fondness and celebration.
The closure of Bohemian Caverns at the end of March is a body blow from which we’ve yet to recover. The club was in a very real, very palpable sense the heartbeat of jazz in the District, as even some of its competitors acknowledge, and a silenced heartbeat can’t be replaced. For our little corner of the world, it was the equivalent of the deaths of David Bowie, Prince,Phife Dawg, and Leonard Cohen, all in one.
Add to that the loss of Union Arts—which we admittedly had more time to prepare for, but it sucks nonetheless—and that’s yet another jazz venue gone this year. CapitalBop, which presented its jazz lofts there, was a bit inconsistent because of that (and because its head honcho, Giovanni Russonello, temporarily relocated to New York to cover the election for the Times).
There are, of course, still signs of life. Blues Alley and Twins are apparently thriving; Adams Morgan’s Columbia Station and Capitol Hill’s Mr. Henry’s both gained excitement; Jason Moran’s curation at the Kennedy Center had some interesting stuff happening; Atlas Performing Arts Center and Bethesda Blues & Jazz still have… some jazz; and Alice’s Jazz and Cultural Society in Brookland solidified its position as the locus of the scene’s grass roots. And singer Aaron Myers became the figurehead of an initiative to give jazz support from the government of the District of Columbia. Finally, the year saw a surprising number of excellent recordings from our in-town talents.
So it’ll be nobody’s favorite year, but 2016 still gave jazz fans something to hold onto. Here are the highlights.
ARTIST OF THE YEAR:
Elijah Jamal Balbed
Technically, tenor saxophonist Balbed resides in Queens. But you’d never know it by looking at his gig schedule. Even more than when he lived in town, Balbed was everywhere this year—leading his quartet in the premiere of a new suite at Union Arts, backing Donvonte McCoy at Eighteenth Street Lounge and George V. Johnson at Blues Alley, bringing the JoGo Project to the gala opening of the African American History Museum, sitting in on bass (!) at AJACS—doing superlative work. He may sleep in the City That Never Does, but Balbed is deservedly the face of D.C. jazz in 2016.
RECORDINGS OF THE YEAR (tie):
Mark G. Meadows, To the People Sriram Gopal, The Fourth Stream
Two albums that couldn’t be more different. Pianist/composer Meadows’ album finds him crossing over into that murky territory between jazzman and singer-songwriter—and doing so to razor-sharp, socially conscious effect. Gopal is a semi-professional drummer and bandleader who is probably more surprised than anyone to be mentioned here. But his debut album was audacious world fusion, featuring the best ringers in town.
Rittenhouse has bebop chops and a blazing, clear-as-glass sound that distills the virtuosity of Clifford, Freddie, and Woody into a fluid, soul-drenched conception of his own. The world redefiners ought to make sure they can play like Kenny first.
The trombone yields tremendous power, and it can be easy to forget that content has to back up that power. Krupa did the finest balancing act of those two elements I heard this year.
BEST ALTO SAXOPHONIST:
Genuinely don’t know how he does it. Keys has some yawning reservoir somewhere of idea after musical idea, and expresses with virtuosity, energy, and astonishing grace.
BEST TENOR SAXOPHONIST:
Dixon’s wondrous album A Conversation Among Friends offers dark-chocolate tenor tone, by a man who munches on that tone with zeal.
BEST BARITONE SAXOPHONIST:
Once again, Pilzer could win this award if it were just “Best saxophonist,” plain and simple. But bari is her primary, and she has a tight-phrased, muscular, but very personal sound on it.
Johnson wins yet again, demonstrating his fearsome ability to do anything he’s asked, or discovers he needs to do. Thanks to this fall’s third album, The Art of Becoming, we can add “master of fusion” to his long list of superlatives.
The dean was as great as he’s ever been in acoustic, straightahead contexts. But this year he elevated himself to electric bass badass, with rock and funk and angst all joining the party.
Norris goes after the hustle with everything he’s got. But damned if his sharp ears and joyful rhythmic precision don’t back up that hustle.
Yes, he’s probably always going to win.
George V. Johnson
2016 began Johnson’s comeback, now that he’s retired from New Jersey transit and can give music the full-time treatment. His voice is beautiful, his improvisations savvy, his lyrics clever and entertaining.
Mark G. Meadows
The keen social conscience that Meadows honed so effectively this year—“Stay Woke” might be the song of our era—came without abandoning his ingenuity for writing arrangements (his take on “Reelin’ in the Years” is a classic) or beautiful backdrops for improvisation (“Live to Look Back”).
BEST LARGE ENSEMBLE:
Twins Jazz Orchestra
Perennial winners BCJO were the highest-profile collateral damage of the Caverns’ demise; their occasional gigs notwithstanding, it thinned the competition significantly. But that’s not why Thad Wilson’s TJO won—they simply sounded beautiful, and their late-set forays into free jazz are a great adventure.
BEST SMALL ENSEMBLE:
Firebird Organ Trio
Held at the oft-overlooked Columbia Station, Firebird’s weekly gig paired a unique (and constantly rotating—with trombonist Shannon Gunn the only constant) lineup with a penchant for performing classic jazz albums. What’s not to love?