I missed out on what has since gotten buzz as perhaps the best concert of this year’s DC Jazz Festival: Thundercat (above), who played Friday night at the Hecht’s Warehouse in Ivy City. A colleague compared it to Bobby McFerrin‘s show at the 2011 festival, which I still regard as the single best concert the DCJF has ever produced.
So I’m kicking myself—-but not too hard. There are far too many amazing moments with which I can fill that void in my festival experience. The lush complexity of Elliott Hughes‘ music, back-to-back with the deceptive intimacy of Gretchen Parlato and Lionel Loueke. Marshall Keys blowing it away yet again at the Yards. Sine Qua Non embroidered with a string quartet, achieving that acme of classical, jazz, and world music that it’s been striving for. Jack DeJohnette, Ravi Coltrane, and Matthew Garrison working over “Lonely Woman” (the death of Ornette Coleman cast a certain pall over the festival) and “The Sidewinder.” Watching Ernest Khabeer Dawkins‘ In the Spirit Big Band, and suddenly realizing that the person responsible for those sublime trumpet improvisations was our own Thad Wilson. AfroHORN belting out “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The Cookers‘ slowly contracting horn finale on “Croquet Ballet.” Oliver Lake‘s polytonal bliss over the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra on
his own Bilal‘s “Sometimes.”
Thus far, the best edition of the DC Jazz Festival has been 2012‘s; frankly, the two years after that represented a precipitous decline. That decline has been arrested. This year’s ranks at least alongside 2012 and may, with hindsight, prove to be the superior year.
The arrival of Willard Jenkins as the festival’s artistic director has been a much-needed injection of new blood, new perspective, new ideas. (Earlier, I suggested that Jenkins had come aboard too late to do much of this year’s programming; in fact, he pointed out, he was responsible for about three-fourths of it.) Its eclectic roster was indeed a virtue, and one of its great pleasures was being able to leave one a performance in one style and go to a completely different one (like the Elliott Hughes to Parlato/Loueke transition) without sacrificing quality. There also seemed to be real integration between the various presenters: Atlas, Bohemian Caverns, CapitalBop, Transparent Productions—all seemed more than ever to be working with the same (creative) goals in mind.
This is not to say that there weren’t some difficulties. Passing by some back-end gripes, the sound issues at the Yards concert on Saturday were inexcusable; they first delayed the opening act, Marshall Keys, then sabotaged Esperanza Spalding’s set to the point that Spalding and the band walked offstage for several minutes while they were worked out. And Spalding was not a good match for the outdoor venue anyway; her charm is enormous, but still works best with a (for lack of a better word) captive audience, and her new Emily’s D+volution project has a theatrical component that commands a suitably theatrical setting. And while the venues and producers felt like they were in sync, there was a bit of grumbling that they still didn’t receive the collaborative credit they were due.
One complaint that got a bit stronger this year was one of the most frequent at jazz festivals all around the world: the appearance of non-jazz acts as headliners. Rapper Common, who followed Spalding at the Yards on Saturday, took the brunt of these complaints—-but Spalding got some heat, too, for her decisive turn from straightahead jazz tradition (though that’s been in process for a while now). I’ve already made my feelings on Spalding clear: Emily’s D+volution is better music, and better jazz, than any of her more straightahead projects have been. I stand by that.
I didn’t see Common and won’t comment myself. But several months ago Jenkins, who foresaw the discontent about him, commented pre-emptively: “One of the ways you develop an audience is by presenting not only a broad range of the music, but the music and its extensions. Some will say ‘Common? What’s he doing on there? He’s not jazz.’ Well, no, he’s not jazz, but he has worked with jazz musicians. And he respects jazz. And he has engaged jazz elements in what he does. So I see nothing wrong with presenting that—-I’m not a purist from that perspective.”
Regardless of your feelings about that argument, it reveals Jenkins’ bold approach to programming. That served the festival well this year and bodes even better for 2016, when the whole of the festival will be his to fill out. Jenkins also has ambitious plans for a robust humanities component and even a film series.
Knowing that, I must admit I’m excited. I will continue to fret a bit about overuse of repeat acts; I had said last week that it might be time to hang up Snarky Puppy‘s slot, and I still think so. But I also acknowledge that the band sold out two nights at the Hamilton; it’s awfully difficult to put aside such a demonstrable success.
But nonetheless, after a couple of disappointing years it must be said: The DC Jazz Festival is back.