We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
It wasn’t just the pandemic that led Jamal Gray’s jazz/funk/hip-hop band Nag Champa Art Ensemble to stay out of the D.C. spotlight in recent years. Gray and his partner had a second child, and two of his bandmates also had children. But now, a year and a half after the group played their last gig, at Rhizome in September 2021, the current incarnation of Nag Champa Art Ensemble is performing at the Phillips Collection’s After 5 event on Thursday, April 6.
While Gray hasn’t been onstage much in recent years, he’s kept active in the arts world. He recently produced a number of songs for the upcoming Plunky & Oneness of Juju album that will be released via the reborn Black Fire label he and Richmond-based trumpeter James Plunky Branch run. Gray has also been working within arts programming, curation, and administration, as well as film production. He continues to DJ on public radio station WPFW. And, for his day job as a program engagement coordinator at Cultural DC, Gray also curated the 2022 event Torrents: New Links to Black Future. All of this work has led him to establish new artistic goals.
On the phone with City Paper, Gray says the Phillips gig is “gonna be kind of an iteration of Nag Champa.” In the past, Gray would program beats on a computer while adding vocals alongside his bandmates who sing, rap, and chant while playing guitar, bass, keyboards, sax, and percussion. But this time, he says, “we want to do a more traditional kind of jazz quintet.”
His bandmates will perform, and, following their show, Gray will “be DJing and playing a lot of the music that I play on my radio show, Rock Creek Drive.” Gray’s parents met at WPFW when they both worked there; he says his own Saturday morning 2 to 5 a.m. show on the station focuses on music from 1968 to 1978, including jazz, obscure danceable songs known as “rare groove,” funk, and fusion, alongside soundtrack and library music. Gray, a fan of hip-hop producer Dilla, does play some more contemporary music, noting he might throw in some Stereolab. He previously told City Paper that his 2020 mixtape GODSPEED (ɡädˈspēd), released under the under the moniker Aquatic Gardner, reflects his interests in both old and new sounds.
Some of the original Nag Champa Art Ensemble band members—Alan Jones on drums, Elijah Easton on tenor sax, and Kwesi Lee on keyboards—will be joined by Dana Hawkins on bass and Abdul Mohammed on percussion.
Since Gray and his bandmates have been busy with work and family schedules, they have less time to focus musically so these days they need to “think more critically,” says Gray. But the family time, he says, “makes us more whole humans and matures everyone in good ways.”
“It’s also given us a chance to sit back and kind of be observant, and creating in our own chambers,” he adds. That solitude, he says, has allowed them to hone their craft. “I think when people hear the word jazz, they just automatically think of like straight ahead or something more loungey, but, you know, it’s gonna have that essence still with a hip-hop infusion and kind of trip-hoppy feel.”
This gig at the Phillips, in Gray’s opinion, is an opportunity to highlight Easton. “He’s a bandleader who plays tenor sax,” Gray explains. “I think he’s one of the hidden gems in the area. And he’s played with a lot of really great musicians. He plays regularly with Corcoran Holt at the Flavor Garden.”
But Gray’s main passion in recent years has been working on films. Gray produced last year’s Black Fire, about the jazz, funk, and pan-African record label of the same name that was started in 1975 by his late father Jimmy Gray and Branch. The documentary aired on PBS stations earlier this year and is currently available to stream on the PBS website. Gray also worked on the Smithsonian Channel’s Afrofuturism, the Origin Story; he even got to include musicians from Nag Champa, which encouraged the band “to expand the sound and put the music in a different kind of context,” he says.
Continuing to combine his love and music and film, Gray also wrote a musical composition that was placed in the 2022 Netflix documentary Untold: The Rise and Fall of AND1, about a traveling street basketball team and its sneaker sponsor. Now, he’s beginning work on a documentary about the 2022 Home Rule Fest at Walter Reed, with a team including Charvis Campbell of Home Rule Records. Gray says the festival’s unique inclusion of avant-garde jazz, bouncebeat, and an Afro-funk group associated with the original Black Fire label, and the Black Fire documentary’s debut justifies the creation of this new documentary.
His film work has Gray hoping that, in the future, Nag Champa can be a band as well as “a production unit” that will allow both the group and its individual members’ to get their music into movies. As he says, “Music really led me into these other spaces.”
Jamal Gray and Nag Champa Art Ensemble play at Phillips at 5’s The Artist’s Materials on April 6 at the Phillips Collection. phillipscollection.org. $20 (free for members).