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Something has happened to the Rosslyn Jazz Festival lately. Its 22 years of life have been dominated by middling selections—-easy-listening singers, holdovers from the bigger festivals—-and an “all headliner” lineup with sub-headliner offerings. It appears, though, that with the new decade the Rosslyn Business Improvement District (the festival’s longtime organizer) has been infiltrated by jazz-programmer types who actually know their shit. These days, when they claim to focus on booking “the genre’s most visionary artists,” they’re not exaggerating.
This year’s festival, which begins at 1 p.m. Sept. 8 at Gateway Park (i.e., the grassy little plaza just on the Arlington side of the Key Bridge), may be the most visionary yet.
The obligatory local artist is none other than Afro-Blue. The festival lineup is not the same one that competed on TV (they’ve renamed themselves the Afro-Blue Vocal Band); it’s the current batch of Howard students. But that just means they can concentrate on the jazz and more challenging, unique arrangements from which the Vocal Band was forced to depart.
Then come the big guns. Rene Marie, another artist with local roots (she was born Warrenton, Va.), is an increasingly buzzed-about singer. Her stunning facility to move between jazz, soul, blues, and pop is actually trumped by her songwriting, in which stories unfold with dramatic tension and poetic grace. Adventurous clarinetist Don Byron, meanwhile, who’s courted styles from free jazz to soul to klezmer, here pursues yet another new avenue with his New Gospel Quintet. The headliner, Joshua Redman, is one of the most influential tenor saxophonists of the last two decades, equal parts hard-charging aggression (á la Sonny Rollins) and sinuous, atmospheric experimentalist (á la Keith Jarrett).
It’s a small festival, obviously, but who cares when it’s also a festival with imagination and edge? And best of all, it’s free.
Photo courtesy Rosslyn BID