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It’s been a year of up-and-down swoops for D.C. jazz. But even in its tough spots, our local scene finds occasion to show its best sides. (There was likelier no tougher spot this year than the death of Butch Warren, but the tributes and dedications to him across the city were a thing to behold. Likewise, the monthlong closure of Bohemian Caverns sparked two nights of blazing music in a fundraiser for the club.) And of course, when it’s on its game, it’s as good as music gets.
Here are the winners of Washington City Paper‘s third annual Jazzies.
ARTIST OF THE YEAR: Allyn Johnson I started off this year apologizing to Allyn Johnson, so I now end it by, in a sense, coronating him. Johnson was everywhere this year—-starting and leading his own band and playing his own music as well as accompanying damn near everyone, locally or not (including superlative work on his own recording and on trombonist Reginald Cyntje‘s—-and at the top of his game in every sense. His always dense (I swear I’ve seen him play 10-finger chords) but unrelentingly musical pianistics are among the best things to be found in D.C. jazz, and Johnson (who is also the director of Jazz Studies at UDC) has been such a commanding figure here for so long that, even though this is only the third Jazzies, this mention feels long overdue.
RECORDING OF THE YEAR: Allyn Johnson and Sonic Sanctuary, The Truth Not just D.C.’s best album, but the best jazz album of 2013, period. (And that in a year where Wayne Shorter released a new recording—-of new compositions!) Johnson demonstrates that his compositional chops are as captivating and virtuosic as his playing chops, using simple but highly unusual and idiosyncratic devices to great effect. His trio (bassist Romeir Mendez and drummer C.V. Dashiell) is masterful, his playing ingenious. And damn it, the whole thing is just a garden of delights.
BEST TRUMPETER: (tie) Donvonte’ McCoy J.S. Williams It came down to these two, and trying to choose between them was impossible. They’re quite different. McCoy has a smoky tone and his improvisation takes a darker, more ominous path; Williams is bright and declarative (though surprisingly delicate) in both tone and trajectory. But they’re united in both the instrument they share, and their jaw-dropping accomplishment on it. They also pepper their lines with little flairs of virtuosity that each keep you eager for the next one.
BEST TROMBONIST: Reginald Cyntje Cyntje’s second album, Love, took him to a new level, with smart, sensitive playing that was so personal, it was almost a different and highly unique instrument. This was equally true of his live performances, all beautiful stuff.
BEST ALTO SAXOPHONIST: Marshall Keys As many great alto players as there are in D.C. (and we actually lost a couple this year), Keys’ staggeringly confident sound and bottomless melodic imagination are hard to top. That said, let’s hope the other altoists continue to try.
BEST TENOR SAXOPHONIST: Elijah Balbed Once the city’s Best New Jazz Musician, he’s evolved into the Hardest Working Man in Washington. (Suck it, Obama.) Indeed, while Balbed’s got a hell of a sound and imagination to match, what puts him over the top is his constant gig-on-top-of-gig hustle (which at the moment includes being one of Strathmore’s Artists in Residence, a richly deserved honor) and his seemingly endless supply of energy and ideas amid that hustle.
BEST BARITONE SAXOPHONIST: Leigh Pilzer This and the two preceding categories could be condensed into “best all-around saxophonist,” and Pilzer would win it. She plays all of them (in fact, she’s played all of them just as a member of the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra). But bari is her main ax, and the one on which she burns the hottest.
BEST GUITARIST: Pete Muldoon The smoky, woody sound is a delight to hear, and never gets old.
What, you needed more reason than that?
BEST PIANIST: Noble Jolley This could easily turn into the Allyn Johnson show (and that wouldn’t be a bad thing), but this year my ear was won by the subtle but luminous tones of Noble Jolley. He favors short notes, played in a way that are immediately recognizable as his own, and deploys them in deeply moving fashion.
BEST BASSIST: Kris Funn As always, the toughest category of all. But this spring, on a gig with guitarist Mark Whitfield, I watched as Funn played the cleverest, most imaginative and virtuosic bass solo I’ve ever encountered from him. Soon after I found out he’d done it through the excruciating pain of an injury to his hand. No other bassist this year has topped that trick.
BEST DRUMMER: John Lamkin Lamkin was much like Johnson this year, seemingly everywhere and never flagging in his energy and creativity. If anything, every time he performed seemed better than the last.
BEST PERCUSSIONIST: Victor Provost Because.
BEST VOCALIST: Rochelle Rice Rice can, and does, sing anything and in just about any context. Moreover, that artistic generosity is matched with an unwavering grace and dignity in her performances; in its quiet way, it’s dazzling.
BEST COMPOSER: Allyn Johnson All right, perhaps it will become the Allyn Johnson show. There was a strong element of surprise herein; Johnson’s played so many standards, familiar gospel tunes, and side work for other composers that it was a shakeup to hear him working out his own tunes. And, it turned out, he’s got quite the facility, carving out of his mountainous chords some beautiful and instantly memorable themes (“Seek the Truth” and “Tune in A” have mighty rewards) and harmonies (like “Sonic Sanctuary Theme,” which proves quite haunting.
BEST VENUE: Bohemian Caverns Though it was a bit star-crossed the last year or so, the Caverns is a juggernaut of D.C. jazz. An interviewee recently called it “America’s best jazz club south of New York,” a sentiment that seems lofty on its face but is hard to argue with.
BEST JAM SESSION: U Street Jazz Jam Jam sessions have been stealthily booming in D.C.; the stalwarts at Columbia Station, Takoma Station, and H.R. 57 have been joined by the new standby at Dahlak and the return of the post-show jam at CapitalBop’s Jazz Loft. But the astonishing Friday night sessions at Ulah Bistro are something else altogether, three adrenaline-soaked hours of music so energetic that it crackles.
BEST LARGE ENSEMBLE: Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra There were actually quite a number of big bands to check out this year, from Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra to Shannon Gunn and the Bullettes to the James Bazen Big Band, and several one-off projects. The BCJO, though, remains special. It’s got a zesty experimental edge, the feeling that they’ll try anything, plus great humor—-and a dedicated and colorful cast of characters.
BEST SMALL GROUP: Donvonte McCoy Quintet Remember how good they were two years ago? Yeah—-they’re better now. Anyone who can break through the drunken, sweaty, horny haze of a Saturday night crowd at Eighteenth Street Lounge (and the DMQ does: the masses know what they’re grooving to) starts off several points ahead anyway. But then there’s the band’s amazing chemistry and spellbinding musical voodoo…unassailable.