First, right up front, a disclosure: Your humble correspondent is on the festival’s schedule. I’ll be appearing in a Saturday afternoon panel session entitled “Does the Jazz Media have a Positive Effect on Jazz Audience Development?”
Panel sessions, by the way, join with artist Q&As, workshops, master classes, film screenings, and musical competitions to make the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival (now in its seventh edition), a stunningly robust and well-rounded jazz festival. Not what the casual observer might expect from an event that’s confined entirely to a suburban hotel. But festival curator Paul Carr is nothing if not serious about jazz; each year he turns the Hilton Rockville into a miniature city of jazz, complete with marketplace, restaurant, large theater, and small clubs. (You can even think of the middle school, high school, and college bands, which play in the atrium, as buskers on the city’s streets.)
That’s kind of a pie-in-the-sky view, of course; you can also look at it as something approaching a trade show, as I’ve said in the past. But then you don’t really have to look at it as anything other than a weekend of great music and appreciation thereof. Here are some suggestions:
Friday, Feb. 12
If you’re not coming in from out of town to catch the festival—and a good many people do—you’re (A) probably not reading this preview, and (B) probably not going to catch the first part of Friday’s calendar. It starts at 3 p.m. You are at work. But if you are willing to venture out to Rockville for Friday night jazz, be sure to get there in time for Dave Stryker‘s Organ Quartet. Stryker is a guitarist, and this quartet is a variation on his organ trio with the excellent organist Jared Gold; that trio is already an unusual one because of Stryker’s remarkably delicate touch on his instrument. The quartet adds a tenor saxophone—the truly underrated Don Braden—and also includes Billy Hart, the D.C. native drummer who is one of the best currently working. They play the Ronnie Wells Main Stage at 7 p.m.
At 8 p.m., in the hotel atrium, The Capitol Bones will host a trombone summit. That establishes a minimum of five trombones (i.e., the members of the band, led by trombonist/educator/veteran Army Blues member Matt Niess). However, this is a summit, not a concert, meaning that trombonists are encouraged to bring their horns and join in with the music.
This festival has long taken a traditionalist view; Carr’s motto, “Standing up for real jazz,” tells us that he sees a discrete boundary between what is and isn’t jazz. That’s what makes Terence Blanchard and E-Collective‘s appearance on Friday night so intriguing. Though trumpeter Blanchard first broke through as part of the neo-traditionalist wave of the ’80s, E-Collective plays a style that is quite distant from that neo-traditionalism: hip-hop backbeats, hard-funk conceptions of electric guitar and bass; a heavy presence of electronic processing, and yes, an undeniably jazz-based approach to phrasing and improvisation. (And it’s got a political message to go with that sharp-left aesthetic turn.) They play at 10 p.m. on the Ronnie Wells Main Stage.
Saturday, Feb. 13
It’s another point I’ve made before, but the musical competition component of the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival is one of its most engaging and intriguing. The nervous and competitive energy in the air gives the kids determination to outdo each other and a shot of adrenaline in which to do it.
There are two such competitions. The first, the high school jazz band competition, begins at 10 a.m. in the hotel atrium. That’s the semifinals, which goes on until 4:30 p.m. and features ten high school ensembles from the D.C. area, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey; the finals, which take place on the Ronnie Wells Main Stage at 5 p.m., features three finalists from among those ten.
The other, perhaps fortunately, begins during the intermission in the high school band competition. This is “Jazz Voice” finals, which takes place at noon on the main stage. Six vocalists (Alyssa Allgood, Andre Enceneat, Soyoung Park, Dara Tucker, April May Webb, Noel Wippler) have fifteen minutes on stage (including one required song, GiGi Gryce‘s “Social Call”) before a three-judge panel (Connaitre Miller, Wayne Wilentz, Lena Seikaly).
Afterward, make sure to catch the Terrell Stafford Quintet at 7 p.m. on the Main Stage. Stafford, who was educated locally (he got his undergraduate degree at the University of Maryland), has a beautiful, clean, fluid sound on the trumpet that’s heavily influenced by Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan—the latter whom inspired his most recent album, Brotherlee Love. Stafford’s quintet pairs him with his musical soul mate, saxophonist Tim Warfield, another of the finest practitioners of his instrument.
Baltimore pianist Eric Byrd has a very nice showcase at 9 p.m., in the MAJF club, along with D.C. bassist Bhagwan Khalsa and drummer Alphonso Young, Jr..
And, if you’re still around for it, midnight brings one of the MAJF’s most enduring traditions: a late night jam session led by bassist Wes Biles and his trio. All musicians, on the festival bill or off, are welcome to bring their instruments.
Sunday, Feb. 14
Among the university jazz bands in the area, the American University Jazz Ensemble, led by Josh Bayer, is the most underrated. They will no doubt belie that neglect in their 1 p.m. performance in the hotel atrium.
At 2 p.m., vocalist Chad Carter holds court at the MAJF Club. Carter is also underrated, a D.C. area vocalist with a suave sense of time and delivery that are comparable to the great Kenny Hagood, but boosted with a lively personality of Carter’s own. In other words, he’s a great singer but also a fun one, and his performance should not be missed if you can help it.
Sunday afternoon/evening offer two good chances to see festival curator (and saxophonist and educator) Paul Carr, and in two different guises. Carr the educator and mentor will be on display at 3:30 p.m. when he leads the Jazz Academy Orchestra, the large ensemble of Carr’s Jazz Academy of Music (one of the finest achievements in music education in the D.C. area). At 6 p.m. on the Ronnie Wells Main Stage, Carr himself goes center stage, along with the great D.C. singer Sharon Clark. They are debuting music from their joint CD, the aptly named Carr and Clark, joining them are pianist Bruce Barth, bassist Michael Bowie, and drummer Lewis Nash, world-class players all.
Finally, close out the evening and the festival with two back-to-back marvels on the Ronnie Wells Main Stage. Joey Calderazzo is probably best known as the longtime pianist in Branford Marsalis‘s quartet, where his unerring swing and balance of steely and feathery tones have a prominent place. They shine even brighter, of course, when he’s leading a trio—especially when it includes the astonishing support of bassist Orlando LeFleming and drummer Justin Falkner (another Branford alum). They perform at 7:30 p.m.
Following that is the remarkable vocal styling of Kurt Elling. He is solidly in the Sinatra tradition—his phrasing has perhaps not as much rhythmic freedom as Frankie, but it does have a burning, souful personality that makes Elling seem to draw each syllable from deep within some psychic vault. It allows him to bring the same kind of artistry to Stevie Wonder tunes that he does to the Great American Songbook. Elling performs at 9 p.m.