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The Duke Ellington Jazz Festival

October 2nd, 2008 - The First Full Night


On Thursday, October 2nd, the first full night of Washington, D.C.’s fourth annual Duke Ellington Jazz Festival, I found myself on Capitol Hill. Minutes from where members of Congress had been grappling over the financial bailout plan, I saw the W.E.S. Group and Step Afrika! meld two D.C. traditions in an extended collaborative piece.

The W.E.S. Group, led by saxophonist and music lecturer Will E. Smith, played soulful jazz, inspired heavily by Coltrane, but seasoned with a hint of Go-go, D.C.’s unique brand of funk. Step Afrika! joined the band for several numbers, supplementing the groove with a dancing percussion section orchestrated with boots, canes, and segments of PVC pipe. Stepping, which blends elements of tap dancing and gymnastics, is an African-American schoolyard tradition. On the drive to the show I saw groups of girls stepping while waiting for the Metrobus, confirming the dance form’s fixedness in the community.

Smith’s tone on the tenor saxophone is rich and insistent, and his compositions, though simple and repetitive, never lose their urgency. Jazz musicians in New York tend to be fixated on unpredictability, and constant rhythmic displacement is commonplace. The W.E.S. Group, by contrast, was always in the pocket, but its strict adherence to downbeats, while initially refreshing, almost caused me to burst at the seams. Luckily, the addition of the dancers, who relied on the straightforwardness of the groove, invigorated the performance.

One of the highlights of the evening was a three-part suite entitled “Trane.” An example of what Smith referred to as “historically-conscious music,” and written to represent the northern migration of former slaves, the piece began with “Spiritual,” a wailing jazz waltz in a minor key with impassioned dance accompaniment from a single member of Step Afrika! For the rolling “Train” movement, the entire troupe joined the musicians in an intricately choreographed sequence. In “Jubilee,” the original theme returned, but in a major key.

The piece, simple yet sincere, was colorful and engaging, and with the dancers it made for a dynamic and accessible performance, one especially well suited for school groups. With some shoring up, the collaboration could potentially be a class act aimed at introducing jazz and African-American music to kids.

After the show, I drove to Twins Jazz on U Street to catch a “jazz in the hoods” installment of the festival. Once reputed to be a violent Go-go music hangout, U Street now feels like a tiny version of Greenwich Village. Twins Jazz, one of the top spots in the city to find big name acts, makes a point to provide performance opportunities for students and local acts. It also has a menu featuring great American, Ethiopian, and Caribbean cuisine.

At Twins, Cuban native and Washington resident alto saxophonist Luis Faife was joined by Benito Gonzalez on piano, Corcoran Holt on bass, and Nasar Abadey on drums. Each has roots in the Capital. Gonzalez, who is originally from Venezuela, garnered attention playing at D.C. clubs such as Twins and Bohemian Caverns in the last decade, and is now making his mark on the New York scene, after touring with Kenny Garrett for two years. Holt is also a D.C. native who now lives in New York. Abadey is ubiquitous as a sideman, and leads his own group, Supernova, a mainstay of the capital city scene.

Faife and friends played a raucous show, consisting of only three tunes. They got a late start, because in between sets the musicians sat at the bar to watch the entire vice presidential debate. As soon as it was over, however, their minds were apparently no longer on politics. They jammed fervently on Gonzalez’ “Starting Point,” from his 2004 album of the same name, and then lapsed into a 25 minute rendering of Kenny Garrett’s “Wayne’s Thang.” The energy was high, and increased as late night jazz fans filled the club after 11:00 pm.

These two shows served as a wonderful introduction to the Duke Ellington Jazz Fest, a world-class festival with a diverse and electrifying schedule.

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