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If this article were NPR’s Marketplace, you’d currently be hearing Thelonious Monk’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.”
I’ve been accused of being a cheerleader for, rather than a critic of, D.C. jazz. There may be some truth to that accusation. I love D.C., and I love the jazz scene here. I believe in it. We have some of the finest musicians in America, if not the world, and they don’t get the attention or the credit they deserve.
This, however, was a year in which cheerleading was a little more difficult than in the past. I don’t believe the scene is quite in a “trough,” as one musician said to me, because there were genuine high points. The DC Jazz Festival made an impressive comeback from what decidedly was a trough for it in 2014. And there was another solid comeback on Capitol Hill, when Mr. Henry’s first returned to live jazz performances, then doubled down with a weekly jam session. Several new bands arrived and signed on to regular gigs, including another resident big band on U Street. Blues Alley celebrated a resplendent fiftieth anniversary. And one very new, very exciting, very grassroots venue was born in Brookland.
At the same time, though, two of what were once the most promising jazz venues, Atlas Performing Arts Center and Bethesda Blues & Jazz, had their least jazzy years yet. (Apart from BB&J’s weekly fusion jam, admittedly a unique property in D.C., you’ll find genuine jazz offerings on their schedule perhaps once a month.) Two of the city’s best saxophonists, Lyle Link and Elijah Balbed, moved to San Francisco and New York respectively. One favorite U Street venue, The Islander Caribbean Restaurant, closed its doors permanently. Many of the national/international artists who generally stop into the District on their touring circuits passed us by this year. (In six years of doing Jazz Setlist, I have never struggled to complete installments as often as I did in 2015.) And two leading lights of the avant-garde, saxophonist Aaron Martin and bassist Luke Stewart, were temporarily neutralized when their instruments were stolen.
Could’ve been worse (and has)—but it could’ve been far better. Perhaps some more vigorous cheerleading would have helped?
Well, some real fodder for it did persist in 2015. Here, now, are the Washington City Paper’s fifth annual Jazzies:
ARTIST OF THE YEAR Nasar Abadey Sometimes a single performance can put someone over the top. Drummer/composer/bandleader Abadey (a civic treasure) did no shortage of amazing work this year, including an improvised duet with Jamal Moore in January, a triumphant one-nighter at Blues Alley in July, and several accompanist gigs that included backing Elijah Balbed in his farewell show. But Abadey’s Bohemian Caverns appearance in November with his band Supernova—which now includes New York-based trumpeter Josh Evans—was the most transcendent set of live music that this writer saw this year in D.C. (Indeed, with the exception of a David Sanchez performance in the Dominican Republic, it was the most transcendent set I saw anywhere.) As I said that evening, this is The Real Shit.
RECORDING OF THE YEAR: Trio OOO, Days to Be Told Trio OOO bassist Luke Stewart is among those who prefers the broader term “creative music” for what he and his compatriots do—and with Days To Be Told, it isn’t hard to see why. Stewart, drummer Sam Lohman, and alto saxophonist Aaron Martin aren’t merely creating their own melodic-harmonic-rhythmic combinations. They’re creating the parameters, the contexts, and the basis for those combinations—and making them accessible without condescension. An act of musical radicalism that isn’t likely to go over anyone’s head, Days to be Told is a piece of colossal empathy and imagination.
BEST TRUMPETER: DeAndre Shaifer There’s a passel of great trumpeters in D.C. that has kept any one of them from winning this category twice. (One year there was even a tie.) Even so, Shaifer’s beautiful, distinctive sound and deep resources in using it have too long been overlooked.
BEST TROMBONIST: Shannon Gunn On the other hand, this category has been owned by Reginald Cyntje, the winner in all but one year. That he didn’t win this year is no discredit to Cyntje, who remains exemplary, but a great credit to Gunn. Her sharp, disciplined work in the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra makes her competitive; her push to put her instrument into bold contexts (an organ/trombone combo?) puts her over the top.
BEST ALTO SAXOPHONIST: Aaron Martin When Martin’s ax was stolen this fall, it was a genuine disaster. He’s a free player who quietly, but consistently bucks the stereotypes about free jazz with his clear tone and melodic chops. His imagination is even more illuminating, and his sheer dedication to what he does is insurmountable. Thank God he got a new alto.
BEST TENOR SAXOPHONIST: Lionel Lyles I strongly considered creating a “Best New Artist” category, solely to put Lyles in it. Lyles’ saxophone stylings—smooth, confident, and swinging like hell—are matched by his absolute determination to break on the D.C. scene. Put out a call for a jam session, cutting contest, dinner gig, and Lyles was there, even bringing his own charts. Lyles is a Baltimore native, but thankfully he’s increasingly essential to Washington jazz.
BEST BARITONE SAXOPHONIST: Brad Linde Believe it or not, there are other baris in town besides Linde and Leigh Pilzer, the other regular recipient of this title. (Never pass up a chance to see the U.S. Navy Commodores, whose baritone, Robert Holmes, is also the musical director). But none of them took more chances or pushed the people around him harder, than Linde did this year.
BEST SOPRANO SAXOPHONIST: Marshall Keys This category came into being last year for Keys’ sake. His unfalteringly beautiful work at Yards Park during this year’s D.C. Jazz Festival wins it for him again.
BEST PIANIST: Allyn Johnson What can I say? He kills it in Cyntje’s and Abadey’s bands, and in The Young Lions, and with Shaifer, and behind every vocalist he comes into contact with. He put out a cool record of his own with saxophonist Tim Green, and has another one in the works. He’s just a bad dude.
BEST BASSIST: Steve Novosel I can’t say that Novosel makes playing the bass look easy; the intellectual rigor shows in his face with every winsome phrase. (His hands, as facile as though he were braiding hair, are another story.) But he makes deep-toned supporting tones and delicate lyrical solo passages sound easy, and that’s an even bigger achievement.
BEST DRUMMER: Nasar Abadey C.V. Dashiell Savannah Grace Harris Three astonishing beaters between whom I refuse to choose. Abadey is the experimentalist whose “Multi-D” approach to music finds its greatest expression on the kit. Dashiell is the badass who does something killing every time he’s onstage, almost as though it were a reflex that he had to discharge before the evening was through. Harris is the incisive, penetrating young blood who couldn’t lose the beat if her life depended on it.
BEST PERCUSSIONIST: Victor Provost It still seems ridiculously obvious, but I suppose some people really might need an explanation. Provost’s steelpan drum is rare enough in jazz that it’s hard to call one person’s playing of it “distinctive” and “imaginative”; but (1) the rarity itself goes a long way in Provost’s favor; and (2) his use of jazz’s language is by itself distinctive and imaginative, no doubt in part to the facts of the instrument (that resonance is its own animal) but also because of Provost himself.
BEST VOCALIST: Christie Dashiell Last year I called it “Dashiell’s year.” Well, that was before she did exciting local work in a Bohemian Caverns residency, scored a place on an exciting major-label compilation, and more or less played Sarah Vaughan in a live Kennedy Center (and elsewhere) program of “Sarah Vaughan and Clifford Brown Reimagined.”
BEST COMPOSER: Reginald Cyntje Hearing the tunes on Cyntje’s Spiritual Awakening come together, first live and then on record, was an extraordinary peek into the creative process, but more than that it demonstrated what an imagination and craftsmanship the trombonist has been developing. Wait till you hear what he has planned for the next one.
BEST VENUE: Bohemian Caverns I didn’t go out as often as I wanted to this year, but the Caverns always remains the first choice. It’s great fun, with a hearty local following of fans (though often noisy ones) and great beer. And the programming, whether local or national, is aces.
BEST LARGE ENSEMBLE: Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra It was actually a strong year for big bands, what with Twins starting its own resident ensemble, the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra celebrating 25 years, and even the Jonathan Parker Octet sounding (and acting) like a big band. But the BCJO wins again, having had an extraordinarily ambitious year and consistently delivering on it. Collaborations with Miho Hazama, Elliott Hughes, and even the legendary Oliver Lake made for spectacular music.
BEST SMALL ENSEMBLE: Nasar Abadey’s Supernova The Real Shit, y’all.