Aside from its obvious, face-value innovation, the DCJazzPrix—the DC Jazz Festival’s freshly inaugurated jazz band competition—offers a deeper and perhaps more important change to the way the festival promotes jazz. Whereas the focus (like most festivals) has been on showcasing established talents and giving important exposure to up-and-coming talents, the JazzPrix finds the DCJF cultivating new acts from the ground up. It features a residency (including a prime spot in the 2017 festival lineup), professional development, and possibilities for commission and clinic work…along with an incidental $15,000 cash prize.
And it now has its inaugural recipient. The New Century Jazz Quintet, a New York-based ensemble, won the JazzPrix’s finalist round at Yards Park on Saturday afternoon. Founded in 2013 by pianist Takeshi Ohbayashi and drummer Ulysses Owens Jr.,the quintet also includes trumpeter Benny Benack III, alto saxophonist Braxton Cook, and—in this performance—bassist Corcoran Holt. (The DCJF website lists Yasushi Nakamura on the bass; Holt appears to be a substitute.) Cook and Holt are both D.C. natives and graduates of Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
The NCJQ competed in the finals with two other bands, New York’s Cowboys and Frenchmen and D.C.’s Mark G. Meadows and the Movement. All three were incredibly solid, swinging ensembles with formidable potential.
The judging process for the JazzPrix was opaque—deliberately so, at least in part—but apparently included an audience vote. The festival created a hashtag for each of the contestants and encouraged the audience to post them as votes for their favorites.
Both The Movement and Cowboys and Frenchmen’s 20-minute sets were distinguished by creatively arranged covers: The latter performed the American folk standard “Man of Constant Sorrow,” the former, pianist Meadows’ reimagining of Steely Dan‘s “Reelin’ in the Years” (a staple of his gigs around the District).
NCJQ, the last act to play, immediately notified the audience that they were something special; on their post-bop opener they swung so hard, they positively sizzled. But it was its second tune that may have put the group over the top. It suggested an earlier, pre-war style of swing and melody, and to drive the point home, Benack brandished a plunger mute. His sound evoked that of Bubber Miley, the lead trumpeter for the Ellington Orchestra during its 1920s “jungle music” era. Taken together with the singing contemporary sound of their opener and closer (which had a jubilant bounce), it suggested both versatility and a scintillating vision.
In short, the New Century Jazz Quintet is one to watch. And thanks to the DCJazzPrix, we in the DMV will have the opportunity to do exactly that.