It’s a terrible name, isn’t it? But “Jazz Awards” was taken, and this was the best I could do on short notice. And our city’s ever-more-vibrant jazz scene deserves some superlatives for its members. So! Without further ado, here are the winners of the Arts Desk 2011 D.C. Jazzies:
ARTIST OF THE YEAR: Afro-Blue I said much of it already, but it bears repeating: Between their crowd-pleasing Kennedy Center appearances, their triumphant work with Bobby McFerrin at the D.C. Jazz Festival, and their elimination-cum-valediction on NBC’s The Sing-Off, Afro-Blue ran away with this title. The Howard Unversity a cappella ensemble gave literal voice to jazz, Howard, and Washington on a national level, and did so beautifully.
RECORDING OF THE YEAR: Brian Settles & Central Union, Secret Handshake The year was a banner one for jazz records in this town, but none offered so uncompromising and compelling a vision as saxophonist Settles’ buffet of lyricism, freeform exploration, and stylistic versatility. It’s a cross-section of the leader’s musical personality that, considering it’s his debut recording, is all the more astonishing in its assurance.
BEST TRUMPETER: Joe Herrera Herrera’s ambition is a big help in this category—-he’s got ideas to spare, and finds fresh ways to implement all of them—-but ultimately he just played the most horn this writer heard in D.C. this year.
BEST TROMBONIST: Reginald Cyntje There were a surprising number of spectacular trombone players this year. Cyntje, however, outdid himself with a remarkable album (Freedom’s Children: The Celebration) and a series of formidable album release gigs, as well as great sideman appearances that showed just how able and imaginative a player he really is.
BEST ALTO SAXOPHONIST: Brent Birckhead With his tough, aggressive sound and a font of rhythmic power behind it, Birckhead is a young player with bottomless potential.
BEST TENOR SAXOPHONIST: Brian Settles Settles can and has played in every context imaginable in jazz this year, but his tone, probing and sinewy but with a soft edge, remains unmistakable—-as does his penchant for finding adventure in whatever style he plays.
BEST BARITONE SAXOPHONIST: Brad Linde There’s a certain “by default” element here, but Linde earns the title with his hard work, hefty melodic playing, and versatility in God knows how many ensembles.
BEST PIANIST: Allyn Johnson Johnson remains the best piano player in the city by a considerable margin, with such astonishing facility that a club patron would be easily forgiven for checking the piano keys for grease.
BEST BASSIST: Herman Burney The single most competitive category on this list. However, Burney has a singing in his bass sound that is rare in any scene, and the work he did this year (including his Offering album) was surpassingly beautiful.
BEST DRUMMER: Nasar Abadey This writer has yet to hear something that the dean of D.C. jazz drummers can’t play. Gospel, funk, free, hard bop, or some combination thereof, Abadey is a first-call musician who brings power, zest, and generous amounts of joy to every bandstand on which he appears.
BEST PERCUSSIONIST: Victor Provost Duh.
BEST VOCALIST: Lena Seikaly The robust contralto is full of surprises, but inconsistency isn’t one of them. She is precise, rich, articulate, and emotionally profound.
BEST COMPOSER: Lena Seikaly Original composition is one of the recent glories of D.C., and Seikaly is one of many top-notch players in that game. Hers weren’t necessarily the most ambitious, sophisticated, or technically intriguing (though they weren’t far off); they were simply the most compelling and memorable.
BEST LARGE ENSEMBLE: Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra Another by-default choice, perhaps, but the BCJO refuses to rest on its laurels. They’re constantly introducing new members, new material, new arrangements and new ways to explore the older ones. Perhaps that’s how they manage to pack the house every week.
BEST SMALL GROUP: Donvonte McCoy Quintet Talk about exciting. McCoy, who was just edged out in the trumpet category, wins this one with his absolutely killin’ gig at Eighteenth Street Lounge, a spicy stew of classic jazz, electronica, rock, funk, hip-hop, and whatever else tickles their fancy any given weekend. They make “jazz” the biggest word in the world.