US Festival Season
While European cities draw a wondrous swath of jazz talent to summer festivals, many cities in the US now create vibrant festivals as summer winds into fall. During the week ending in Labor Day, Chicago, Detroit, and Washington, DC were doing this, using the trailing edge of warm weather to put jazz before audiences that might not make into clubs or concert halls.
Both cities were able to present programs combining local and global talent, of course. Chicago’s city scene is as potent and unique as any, short of New York, and DC (if you include nearby Baltimore) boasts more local talent than most folks know. I know, because I’m from DC and was at the city’s riverside “Wharf” area, where the DC Jazz Fest’s weekend concerts filled the humid air with joy.
Side note: DC’s festival kicked off with a concert by Chicagoan and potent vocalist Kurt Elling and his Charlie Hunter-powered Superblue project. Elling is a global talent today, and this project is another example of how Elling can do just about anything in the music: vocalese, classic ballads, complex New Jazz, and also funky original music. Superblue uses musicians from the band Butcher Brown as well as Hunter’s grooving eight-string guitar, and it makes Elling’s voice sound both looser and more modern. The music evokes Stevie Wonder and Steely Dan but it never abandons Elling’s connection to elements of tradition. Personally, I think the band’s version of Carla Bley’s “Endless Lawns” is a near-perfect cover of a great original.
As planes eased themselves down into National Airport on the other side of the Potomac and sailboats bobbed just feet away, DC Jazz Fest put up music by ageless bassist Ron Carter and Orrin Evans’ big band project. As is now tradition, the weekend closed with a band paying tribute to the city’s patron musical saint Chuck Brown, the Godfather of Go-Go, DC loping, percussion-driven funk variant that sounds, in 2022, like music from a happier, hipper time.
The show that grabbed me most was not local but maybe was just a bit. Bassist Christian McBride played a blues-drenched set with his band Inside Straight which was a master class in how to present “straight-ahead jazz” without having it sound stultified or museum-ish. The band, first of all, is world-class. McBride isn’t ever going to play with a second-tier drummer, and Carl Allen is as fine as any. Pianist Peter Allen mixed sophistication and gospel flourish, and Steve Wilson has played alto and soprano saxophone with fire and wit for the best leaders you can list. If a “string of solos” started to seem dull, McBride would have the rhythm cut to half-time so that Wilson could weep and plead and scream with killer soulfulness against a quiet groove. If a walking bass line was too obvious, the leader’s tune “Star Being” would use an ostinato half-rock feel on a lovely ballad. When Inside Straight finished the show with Milt Jackson’s “SKJ” followed by Freddie Hubbard’s “Theme for Kareem”, the blues were supreme and the pier felt like a revival tent.
But the standout on this quintet of standouts was a (semi-) local guy, Baltimore’s star vibraphonist, Warren Wolf.
Warren Wolf, Undersung Virtuoso
McBride created Inside Straight specifically to give Warren Wolf a forum after McBride worked with him as a student. The band’s first release in 2009, Kind of Brown, featured the same band DC hosted this month but with Eric Reed on piano. But the star of both sessions was Wolf. Every one of his solos manages to be simultaneously thoughtful and utterly shot out of a cannon with excitement. He is that rare player who climaxes nearly every solo with fireworks but also takes the time to develop his improvisations. Listeners can hear him thinking his way through a structure, developing motifs, building ideas, and ushering his playing a strong short story writer.
Wolf’s history as a recording artist and leader hasn’t been heralded as much as it deserves. He made a recording in 2005, before the Inside Straight release, but really splashed into jazz as a leader with his self-titled Mack Avenue debut in 2011. McBride is on bass, Martin on piano, and Gregory Hutchinson on drums. Most of the tunes are Wolf’s (strong exceptions are a wonderful version of “Emily” and a vibes/marimba overdub version of Chick Corea’s “Senor Mouse”), and they are inventive. By 2016, Wolf had the pull to recruit pianist Brad Mehldau, guitarist John Scofield, and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts to join him and McBride on Convergence. It is even better, more introspective and wife but still full of fire. And, to my surprise, I adore his 2020 effort Reincarnation, which is Wolf’s extremely hip take on smooth jazz. The velvety chords and soulful vocals are mixed in with galloping grooves that may use electric bass and gospel inspirations, but performances like “Vahybing” and “The Struggle” get deep and powerful.
Maybe the hottest of his recordings as a leader is Wolfgang from 2013, which features a Benny Green-led piano trio (funky, bluesy material), a slightly more open sound when he’s playing with a piano trio featuring Aaron Goldberg, and also the title track duet with Aaron Diehl that is in the form a classical etude. The point of all this music, however, is simply that Warren is the vibes player for absolutely any purpose. I love Joel Ross, sure, but Wolf is right there. Don’t sleep on him, particularly when you are in the mood for the classic (or, well, classical) sound you associate with Milt Jackson or Bobby Hutcherson.