Yesterday, the DC Jazz Festival announced the musicians for its “DC JazzFest at the Yards” event, the culmination of its annual ten-day presentation. This year the event—at The Yards Park, the gorgeous expanse of Anacostia riverfront between the Navy Yard and the baseball stadium in Southeast—expands to three days, June 17-19. That alone makes it the most ambitious iteration yet: and that’s before we look at the lineup, which evinces not only ambition but some serious daring.
Friday, June 17, is the event’s only free day, and opens at 5 p.m. with wonderful D.C. Brazilian jazz vocalist Cissa Paz. Following Paz is alto saxophonist Sharel Cassity, leading a new band called Elektra: a sextet, and as the name implies, an electric one. (Even Cassity uses electronics to shape her sax sound.) The boldness of this booking lies in the fact that this is a new band; Cassity premiered it in January at New York’s Winter Jazzfest. Even if audiences won’t be charged to see them, it’s a prominent place for a new project.
Saturday’s lineup is much more reliant on proven commodities, although it begins with the finals of the DC Jazz Festival’s new JazzPrix competition (more about this on Arts Desk soon). Then come DC’s Chuck Brown Band, a mandate for all musical events in the District of Columbia; Grammy-winning vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant, one of jazz’s fastest-rising stars; and NEA Jazz Master Eddie Palmieri and his Latin Jazz Septet. It makes up in diversity what it lacks in audacity.
But audacity makes a comeback on Sunday. With the exception of opener Fred Foss, a DC jazz elder (and celebrated mentor), the acts on display skew younger and quite a bit edgier. Drummer E.J. Strickland, for example, is a 37-year-old rhythm technician of unholy power and aggressive funk; he’s leading another new(ish) band, Transient Beings, that folds hip-hop and electronica into progressive jazz. Trumpeter Igmar Thomas and the Revive Big Band are primarily an acoustic band, but are perhaps even more rhythmically edgy than Strickland. Ravi Coltrane, John’s son, is inevitably influenced by his father but has determinedly carved out a unique (and uniquely innovative) path for himself. And then there’s the closer, Kamasi Washington, whom the festival accurately describes as “the year’s most widely-discussed jazz saxophonist.” Washington plays a spiritual jazz vibe that continues from the path laid down by Pharoah Sanders, and made a spectacular splash last year with his triple-CD debut The Epic—and, locally, with a performance at the Howard Theatre. Even so, Washington is still new blood who might have been a 2015 flash-in-the-pan. Is he ready to be a festival closer?
This kind of chance-taking, it must be said, was not something we’d have seen during the reign of festival founder Charlie Fishman; his instincts were solid, but they tended toward the tried-and-true. Willard Jenkins, who in 2016 has his first run of programming the entire festival lineup, is suggesting a bold vision that he clearly hopes will attract a more adventurous (which essentially means younger) audience. It will be interesting to see if the rest of the festival’s lineup, when announced, bears that out.