Wednesday, December 28, 2016

DC Jazz Summer 2016

The Nation’s Capital is a cultural town with the best museums and the Smithsonian Institutions that are all free, the Kennedy Center with its top class performing arts, and a generally well-educated and wealthy populace who take advantage of the opportunities (admittedly, the education and wealth are highly unevenly distributed). In jazz, however, the city can’t compete with New York. Looking back, the summer of 2016 was nevertheless highly satisfying.

Every June sees the DC Jazz Festival in full swing with lots of concerts and live events in different settings. My season started on June 18, when I caught the Mika Mimura group as part of the Jazz Fest. The concert took place at the Japan Information and Culture Center, which has a medium-sized hall styled like an old-fashioned theater. Mika Mimura is a marimba and vibraphone artist born in Osaka, Japan. She has released two CDs under her own name consisting mostly of her own compositions, ‘Precious’ in 2009 and ‘Dreamii’ in 2014. At the JICC she played with a group consisting of the Argentinian guitarist Ignacio Hernandez, and her compatriots Kuriko Tsugawa on bass and Ken Yanabe on percussion. Mika Mimura displayed some impressive mallet work on pieces like‘The Flight of the Bumblebee,’ but was somewhat overshadowed by her mentor, Warren Wolf, whom she had invited to make a guest appearance at the concert. Wolf, a much in demand musician and teacher from Baltimore, displayed such grace, musicality and relaxed charm that his act was hard to compete with. I was also particularly taken by Tsugawa’s bass work that was both subtle and musical. Educated at Berklee College of Music and based in New York, she is a composer and leader in her own right. All in all a highly satisfying evening.

On the following night (June 19) I headed to the Hamilton for a double booking with two of today’s finest Hammond organists, Cory Henry and Joey DeFrancesco. The Hamilton, close to the White House, is one of the best music venues in DC area and, indeed, anywhere. It’s a fairly large space, with tables in front of the stage, a bar on the side towards right, and another bar up the stairs right in front of the stage. The latter is my favored location, but the advantage with the venue is that no matter where you are seated or standing, the view to the stage is unobstructed and the acoustics are very good. So I ordered some wine and got comfortable waiting for the show to start. Cory Henry was a new acquaintance to me but his turned out to be the better part of the evening, at least for me. As the name of his band, The Funk Apostles, would suggest, we were in for some serious funk that night. But the point is that this was not just rhythm music to make you move. Cory Henry’s music is imaginative and creative, the compositions are often complex with intricate harmonies and chord changes. On top of that, Henry’s own playing is both funky and sophisticated at the same time.

As a longer established musician, Joey DeFrancesco was billed as the main attraction of the evening
and the performance was very good. Unfortunately, the more traditional organ trio sounded a bit sedate after the riotous Funk Apostles. DeFrancesco’s organ sound fits well in a nightclub setting and his sidemen, on guitar and drums, performed in a highly skilled fashion in the standard jazz genre. A couple of times the leader would add to the nightclub atmosphere by singing some mellow jazz tunes or taking up his soft blown trumpet. The intensity picked up when he introduced his new tenor sax player. The evening closed with a lengthy jam session when Cory Henry joined the DeFrancesco band on stage. This final interplay with the two virtuoso keyboardists egging each other on was definitely a highlight of the night and received a roaring response from the full house.

On June 22nd the Finnish Embassy hosted an event with Nordic jazz. The modern building on Massachusetts Avenue is exceptionally beautiful, with a high ceiling, simple light wood fixtures and tall windows giving over a forested lot that was still the light green color of early summer. The embassy is also an excellent venue for music due to its good acoustics (and the open wine bar at the side).

First on stage was Sigmar Matthiasson NYC Quartet. The New York based bassist and composer is one of the best known jazz musicians emerging from Iceland. His multinational NYC Quartet consisted of Taulant Mehmeti on guitar, Baden Goyo on piano and Ayman Boujlida on drums. The music was contemplative and dreamlike, broadly in the category that is exemplified by ECM records.

The second performance of the evening was somewhat rougher. The Finnish pianist and composer Mika Pohjola presented a trio with Kyle Struve on drums and Jerome Sabbagh on tenor sax.  The lack of bass took some time to get used to but Mika’s strong left hand was mostly able to fill the void.

On the last week of June I had to travel to Canada for work and subsequently spent three weeks in Japan in July, so there was a month during which I missed whatever Washington could offer music-wise.

Soon upon my return, on July 31, I headed to the Blues Alley in Georgetown where the great  LA-based Poncho Sanchez was making a rare East Coast appearance with his Latin Jazz Band. He told the audience this was his first performance in DC in the past 30 years. I myself last saw him perform in Hollywood in the late-1980s, so this Georgetown reunion was long overdue. This was his last sold out night after several evenings of performances and it turned into a fabulous show. The venerable Blues Alley is a small and intimate venue – Dizzy Gillespie is said to have called it the finest jazz and supper club in the country. It worked perfectly for Poncho’s band, with the leader on congas, percussion and vocals, backed by Joey De Leon (timbales), Rene Camacho (bass), Rob Blake (trumpet and flugelhorn), Robert Hardt (alto and tenor saxophones, flute), Francisco Torres (trombone), Angel Rodriguez (bongos, congas), and Andy Langham (piano). Francisco Torres also serves as the musical director of the band. Blake played some very good trumpet and a lovely solo on the flugelhorn. Hardt shone on the tenor sax, especially in a blues number by Albert King, but it was his beautiful work on the alto sax that particularly caught my ear. He also played one excellent flute solo (I would have liked to hear more). The most innovative player, however, was Andy Langham who was as avant garde as you would ever hear a Latin pianist play. After the show I was so hyper that I couldn’t make myself go straight home. Instead, I crossed M Street and walked up Wisconsin Avenue to El Centro D.F. to wind down with a couple of more glasses of wine in a Latin setting.

On Saturday August the 13th I decided to leave town and headed to the Chesapeake Bay and the small resort town of North Beach. The traffic was heavy as many others had had a similar idea, but I reached the shore well before lunchtime. The weather was brutally hot and humid. The temperature hit +36oC that afternoon and there was absolutely no wind. I was sweating profusely when I found a popular Mexican place, Plaza Mexico, in which to cool down. After my break, I wandered around the beach and watched people swimming in the bay. Then I stumbled upon what was labeled the 1st Annual North Beach Jazz Festival. I entered the small and cozy courtyard – the Yard at 7th Street Market – where the action was. There was a tent where cold beer and hot BBQ were sold. A few tables and chairs were scattered in front of a small stage where a band was playing. There may have been twenty or thirty people in the audience. I found a shady corner and set to listen to the music. 

The first band was fronted by a trumpet player backed by four gentlemen on electric piano, guitar, bass and drums. The music appealed to the audience, myself included, as it swung in a relaxed manner in the summer heat. The predominant mode was 1970s-80s style rock jazz, as exemplified by a decent rendition of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Cantaloupe Island.’

After a short break, another band set up on stage. This one was led by local guitarist, DeonCleanCutt. His two sons belonged to the band as well, the younger playing the drums and the older teenager the trumpet and flugelhorn (he clearly had adopted some of the cool mannerisms of Miles). The fourth member of the band was a bass player from California who was visiting his friend here on East Coast. The bass player no doubt was the most accomplished of the musicians, having performed with such jazz stars as David Murray. The music played by this family group relied more on straight blues and jazz. 

All in all, the festival was an extraordinarily sympathetic event, even if the local bands were nothing spectacular. Mental note: make sure to find out when the 2nd Annual North Beach Jazz Festival takes place next summer.

On August 18, I again got the urge to listen to some live music, so I checked the schedules of the known places in the city to find out that Cyrus Chestnut would be performing at the Blues Alley. So I headed back to Georgetown to catch the later show at 9 pm. Am I ever so glad that I did! The piano trio is a versatile format that gives ample space for the players to stretch out based on their abilities and musical imagination. These are qualities that Cyrus Chestnut is not short of. The sensitive, innovative, open minded, creative, genre bending pianist seems totally unhindered by trivial matters like technique. In his hands, original numbers as well as standards get such a breathtaking treatment that the audience can only gasp in amazement. Again, it was impossible for me to return home without stopping at a bar to calm down.

Then on August 27 it was back to the Hamilton. This time the attraction was Al Di Meola whose Elegant Gypsy meets Romantic Warrior tour was making a one-night stop in the capital. The two-hour musical trip that Al Di Meola treated us to rekindled my enthusiasm for the music of this amazing artist whose music I have to confess I hadn’t really listened to since the 1980s. Despite the complexity and virtuosity, the music at the concert was always warm and lyrical. The band played a lot of new material, including from Di Meola’s fresh album ‘Elysium’ (it is an excellent and beautiful one), although fans would get treated to many of the old favorites as well. 

The concert was divided into three segments. The first part focused on fusion numbers that displayed some of the most advanced playing of the evening. A key member in the band was a tall young black man playing some very inspired electric violin. The second part saw Di Meola switching to an acoustic guitar and the mood changed. The final part was again electric but the focus was on more straightforward jazz rock. The set opened with a powerful version of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ in which a wailing violin played the part of Robert Plant. Some beautiful Santanaesque Latin beats followed. The Hamilton’s high ceiling was again raised when the band, which played like a dream, received several standing ovations and a raucous call for an encore, an encore that was highly rewarding.

September 2 was a night that I had prepared for. I had bought the tickets months ago as they became available. Despite the threat of rain, Chicago drew a crowd of some 7,000 to the Wolf Trap in Northern Virginia. Still going strong, Chicago played a two-hour non-stop show to an enthusiastic audience. The band was fronted by the three-man horn section consisting of the original members: Lee Loughnane, James Pankow and Walter Parazaider. The gentlemen have aged graciously but still put up a very vigorous performance, each playing inspired solos as well as the section parts that were as tight as ever. Old tunes from the band’s earliest albums, like ‘Make Me Smile’ followed each other. The original keyboardist, singer and composer Robert Lammm was there, although his role was somewhat more low key than in the past when his distinct keyboard and vocals defined the Chicago sound alongside the horns. The “new” members have not changed the Chicago sound noticeably. The keyboardist Lou Pardini (who joined the band in 2009) played a major role, also as a singer, but more as a substitute for Lamm. The drummer Tris Imboden (joined in 1990) was powerful as Daniel Seraphine in the original setting. He was supplemented by the biggest innovation in current Chicago: a percussionist. Walfredo Reyes Jr., was fabulous and some of the most exciting moments included his solos. The guitarist, Keith Howland (joined in 1995), spent much time upfront creating fiery solos, without copying the original guitarist Terry Kath (who accidentally shot himself in 1978 – what an American way to go). We also heard big hits, such as ‘If You Leave Me Now,’ performed by the bassist Jason Scheff, who channeled Peter Cetera almost perfectly both on vocals and the bass guitar. To me, a much more important ballad was ‘Color My World’ sung by Lee Loughnane and featuring Walter Parazaider’s classic flute solo, which all of us aspiring jazz and rock flutists at the time emulated. The two-hour concert ended with two of the band’s biggest hits from the early period, ‘I’m a Man’ and ’25 or 6 to 4.’ Needless to say, the multitude in the audience went crazy.

As if by some divine intervention, the rain had held itself throughout the concert, but at the moment the music ended the skies broke into a torrential downpour soaking us as we walked out of the park. It was futile even to try to stay dry as the paths and the roads soon turned into ankle-deep wildly flowing streams.

Once I get started it’s hard to stop. My jazz summer continued well into September. No more concerts by big visiting names, but there is local jazz talent who can attract a decent crowd to some of the locales around town. On the day after the Chicago concert, I ventured into Columbia Station, a long-standing club on 18th Street up in Adams Morgan and enjoyed a couple of sets of modern quartet jazz led by Knute, a local tenor sax player. 

A couple of weeks later, on September 24th my regular neighborhood haunt Acacia Bistro hosted a jazz marathon with several local bands. My choice was to listen to Jordon Dixon, a solid tenor saxophonist playing very good post-bop backed by a guitar, bass and drums trio. I had never seen my favorite neighborhood joint so packed.

By now the summer is but a memory and it is hard to imagine the heat as the cold winter winds chill one’s bones. But although the summer is gone, the music remains. Washington, DC may not be New York and one has to make more of an effort to find music, it still is a fine city.

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