CapitalBop :: Interviews

Interview | Russell Gunn on blasting across boundaries & his new project with Dionne Farris

Russell Gunn plays at Bohemian Caverns this weekend with Dionne Farris. Courtesy

by Allen Jones & Giovanni Russonello
CapitalBop contributor & editorial board

More than just a jazz trumpeter, Russell Gunn uses sounds to expound on a life in the musical trenches. His compositions on Love Requiem and the Grammy-nominated Ethnomusicology Vol. 1, both released in 1999, showed his ability to stretch the art form to his own expressive needs. In his work ever since, he has pushed the envelope with his ideas of how a jazz album can sound.

After a stint on the scene in St. Louis, Gunn came to New York as a member of the Oliver Lake Quintet, during jazz’s neoclassical period of the mid-1990s. He stood out with a focused trumpet sound rooted in bebop and the blues, but bolstered by a prescient vision that made room for the influence of hip-hop, funk and jazz’s avant-garde. It didn’t take long for him to make his debut at Lincoln Center as a part of Wynton MarsalisBlood on the Fields opera. This would be a promising course of action for any young musician, but what he did with this platform is the most interesting.

Gunn says that his first musical inspiration came from LL Cool J, and it makes sense: Golden age hip-hop is arguably just as strong and fertile an influence as is his knowledge of Lee Morgan’s catalogue. To introduce his latest solo album, Ethnomusicology Vol 6, he uses a humorous skit involving a record label executive and his evil minion, discussing the trouble that Gunn plans to wreak on the jazz establishment. He is certainly an iconoclast: Sometimes Gunn will layer a familiar set of jazz standard chord changes over a hip-hop drum machine and turntable scratches, and add his own melody. Or he’ll use his horn as the dominant texture while a variety of synthesizers swell underneath, and throw a sample from a movie on top of it all.

This weekend, Gunn presents his most recent project, a collaboration with the soul singer Dionne Farris that resulted in the 2013 album Dionne Get Your Gunn, during a two-night run at Bohemian Caverns. We caught up with Gunn to discuss his career, the state of jazz and what he likes about co-leading a band with a talented vocalist from outside the jazz world. Continue reading

Interview | Jon Batiste on NOLA, modern music and Stay(ing) Human: ‘There’s room for everybody’

Jon Batiste, second from left, brings his Stay Human band to the Howard Theatre this weekend. Courtesy Peter Lueders

by Allen Jones
CapitalBop contributor

At age 17, Jon Batiste moved from the hospitable musical community of New Orleans, where he was part of a well-known musical family, to the up-tempo world of New York City. He began studies at Juilliard, and immediately became recognized as a virtuoso heir to his hometown’s rich musical tradition. Both a virtuoso pianist and an artist with a personal vision, Batiste champions a concept that he calls “social music” — the ultimate goal is to bring people together.

While studying at Juilliard, where he went on to earn Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, Batiste assembled Stay Human, a four-piece band featuring fellow students. The band’s first album, My N.Y., was recorded during impromptu performances in the New York City subway system; it finds Batiste mixing original compositions with popular songs of all genres, all performed on his Harmonaboard — a handheld keyboard that Batiste blows into while playing chords and melodies with his hands.

On Stay Human’s first studio release, 2013’s Social Music, Batiste sings, preaches and plays both Harmonaboard and piano over an array of beats — variously inspired by New Orleans tradition, classic hip-hop and neo-soul. The band’s two-horn frontline adds a bouncing energy. Stay Human has toured the world, playing not only at concert halls and clubs but also in classrooms and local communities, always with the goal of expanding the music’s accessibility. Batiste has just finished a tour of the American South, where he visited a youth detention center, performing concerts and speaking to the children there about the power of social music to heal and bring people together.

On the piano, Batiste’s playing style harkens back to the flowing but barbed phrasing of Thelonious Monk, and the elusive dynamic evolutions of Ahmad Jamal. It will all be on display this Saturday at the Howard Theatre, when he performs in a presentation of the Washington Performing Arts Society. In the interview below, he offers a more vivid picture of how he hopes Social Music can serve us, and how his background has led him to where he is today. Continue reading

Interview | Craig Handy on Mingus, major labels and that irresistible New Orleans second line groove

Craig Handy. Courtesy

Craig Handy performs this weekend at Bohemian Caverns. Courtesy

by Giovanni Russonello
Editorial board

Craig Handy, a bright and tuneful post-bop saxophonist, is among the assortment of artists recently signed to OKeh Records, the Sony imprint that began releasing albums again last year after a long, dormant stretch. (It hadn’t been jazz-specific since the early 20th century, when it pressed vinyl featuring the likes of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.) The label returns at a complicated time, new formulas being tested and experiments arising in unexpected places. Of everyone on OKeh’s roster, which ranges from established stars like Bill Frisell to newcomers such as James Brandon Lewis, Craig Handy may be the most emblematic of what’s happened in the industry over the past 20 years.

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the young saxophonist from Oakland apprenticed himself to some legendary personas, playing in the bands of Art Blakey, Roy Haynes and Abdullah Ibrahim. It was a good time to be climbing the ladder in the traditional fashion: Buoyed by a revival of interest in classic, midcentury jazz and by the CD sales boom (people were buying up reissues of their favorite vinyl records by the score), labels like Blue Note and Verve reinvested in the music. But by the early 2000s, digital downloading and changing tastes had popped the CD bubble and musicians with expertise in traditional jazz now saw limited options for industry-backed prominence.

Handy was one of those guys. He put out four strong albums between 1991 and 2000, then didn’t release anything under his own name for the next 13 years. In the meantime, he toured continuously with three well-known ensembles that play Charles Mingus’ repertory, and kept his solo career going. Handy’s sharp but flowing improvisational ideas — like ice water on a hot day, sipped or sprayed playfully in your face — and the lessons he’d picked up from his mentors kept him exploring. A few years ago, he settled on an idea for a band. With his quintet, which he titled 2nd Line Smith, Handy enmeshed the age-defying, classic dance music of New Orleans with another distinctly soulful American tradition: organ-driven jazz.

Handy arrives in D.C. today with 2nd Line Smith to begin a two-night run at Bohemian Caverns. In an interview last week, the saxophonist discussed how his band came together, how he intends to use his newfound platform, and what he learned from his years in the Mingus ensembles. Continue reading

Interview | Myra Melford on solo piano explorations, ignoring boundaries and finding out ‘what’s next’

Myra Melford performs this evening at the Strathmore Mansion. Courtesy Bryan Murray

Myra Melford performs this evening at the Strathmore Mansion. Courtesy Bryan Murray

by Luke Stewart
Editorial board

The pianist Myra Melford has an ear for a wide range of influences, and a deliberate touch developed through years of study. They’re qualities she shares with the late Don Reich, whose paintings inspired her latest album, Life Carries Me This Way. It is a collection of stirring solo piano meditations, but it comes off as a kind of warm dialogue between two dedicated artists. Melford sets up complicated rhythms and playfully interacts with them; sometimes she lays out a subtle drone through repetition, and before you know it she has built it into a flurry of pianistic sounds — let alone notes. Each track on the record feels like a complete statement, a finished work of art.

Born and raised in the Chicago area, she was exposed to a wide range of approaches to the music. After attending college in California, equipped with new technical facility and a theoretical understanding of music, she moved to New York City to seek out the masters whom she had heard on recordings and in concerts out west, ready to absorb their teachings and apply them to her own creative concept. Since that time, Melford has blossomed into one of the most standout pianists of her generation.

Seeking to expand her palette, she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship in 2000 and traveled to India to study Hindustani classical music. This, along with her engagement with Sufism and the works of its great poets, showed her new ways to weave through the tricky rhythms set up by her band while gently and subtly expanding harmonic tension. On her hypnotic, immersive solo material, she leans on these influences even more heavily.

Her relentless striving to break musical boundaries has won her a string of recent accolades: Just last year, the Guggenheim Foundation awarded her a fellowship, and the Doris Duke Foundation selected her for both its Performing Artist Award and its residency program, aimed at building demand for the arts. Ahead of her solo piano performance tonight at the Strathmore, I spoke to Melford about her influences, her concepts, and the nature of being a musician in constant search of an original voice. Continue reading

Interview | DeJohnette, Lovano, Spalding and Genovese arrive on Saturday with the Spring Quartet

The Spring Quartet features Jack DeJohnette, Joe Lovano, Leo Genovese and Esperanza Spalding (clockwise from upper left). Courtesy

by Giovanni Russonello
Editorial board

I was talking to Esperanza Spalding in late 2011 about her soon-to-be-released album, Radio Music Society, when she mentioned Jack DeJohnette, who’d guest starred on a few tracks. When she met him, she said, they’d gotten into a conversation about his past work, and he mentioned his 1992 album, Music from the Fifth World. She purchased it and popped it into her car stereo. “I was expecting some swinging jazz record, so I cranked the volume up high,” she remembered. Before long, a devastating wash of electric guitars and crunching percussion was overwhelming her speakers. She described it as “some crazy mix of reggae and heavy metal and jazz.” Whew.

Why mention this now? Spalding and DeJohnette are going to be at the Warner Theatre this Saturday to perform with the Spring Quartet, jazz’s all-star group du jour. It also features the great Joe Lovano on saxophone and Leo Genovese on piano. While I can’t guarantee reggae or metal or any wild card in particular, it’s safe to say that the options are wide open. Expect surprises.

The band has just begun a four-month tour — its first time playing together as a quartet — and this offers a rare moment of discovery: Witness four of the world’s slinkiest interpreters of sound, all of whom have played together in various settings, develop their an identity in a new format. Add the element of cross-generational interchange (Spalding’s in her 20s, Genovese in his 30s, Lovano in his 60s and DeJohnette in his 70s) and you’re talking about a very incendiary brew.

Over the past couple weeks I was able to speak separately with Genovese, Lovano and DeJohnette. They talked about why they’re excited to be working together, and what we might expect at the Warner. As you might expect from the group’s name, the band’s professed goals are newness, growth and constant rebirth. Here’s what they had to say. Continue reading

Interview | Christie Dashiell, D.C.’s next-generation jazz diva, on her musical inspirations

Christie Dashiell, who became nationally known during NBC’s The Sing-Off, performs a commissioned work this Wednesday at Strathmore. John Sanders/CapitalBop

by Nico Dodd
CapitalBop contributor

The vocalist Christie Dashiell, 25, has completed much for a musician her age. You might recognize her face from the third season of NBC’s The Sing-Off, when she was the de facto leader of Afro Blue, a Howard University a capella group that nearly reached the final round. Since then, Dashiell has completed her Masters in jazz vocals at the Manhattan School of Music, and recorded on nationally released albums, including Jonathan Blake’s Motherless Child and the Jolley BrothersMemoirs Between Brothers.

When she sings, Dashiell’s strong but delicate voice shines and soothes. She has been unafraid to put her own distinctive strokes on contemporary pop songs like Ashlee Simpson’s “Pieces of Me” and Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose” — and has done so with great success. She’s headlined at most major area venues, from Twins Jazz to Bohemian Caverns to the Kennedy Center’s KC Jazz Club.

Dashiell is about to wrap up a 10-month stint as artist in residence at Strathmore, where she was commissioned to produce an original work as part of the residency. She will premiere it this Wednesday during her second and final performance at the Strathmore Mansion, and will be joined onstage by her two brothers, the bassist Christian Dashiell and the drummer Carroll Dashiell III, with whom she’s been playing music since their childhood in Greenville, N.C. Continue reading

Audio | Poets reflect on the legacy of Amiri Baraka, lyrical warrior and preeminent jazz historian

Amiri Baraka has left behind a legacy of eloquent poetry and plainspoken demands for a more equitable future. Courtesy David Sasaki/Wikipedia

by Giovanni Russonello
Editorial board

The poet, jazz critic, activist and playwright Amiri Baraka was a man of letters — which, for him, meant being a man of action.

Baraka, who died on Jan. 9, began his writing career as a student a Howard University, when he was known as LeRoi Jones; studying under the radical poet and folklorist Sterling Brown, he imbibed a vision of Black identity that tied the cultural triumphs of the past with a will to outwit and outclass oppression from the grassroots level. The lessons he garnered as a college student and an avid listener on D.C.’s pulsating jazz scene would inform his landmark ethnomusicological book, 1963′s Blues People, which gave voice to the African roots of jazz music and its extensions.

Baraka moved to New York City in the 1950s without graduating, and became a young figurehead of the beatnik scene. He earned the admiration of poets ranging from Allen Ginsberg to Langston Hughes, then moved to Harlem and helped to found the Black Arts Movement. Baraka began to treat all of his work — poetry, playwriting and criticism — as a form of activism on behalf of Black self-advancement, in the United States and abroad. He later moved back to his hometown of Newark, N.J., and assisted in the campaign of Kenneth A. Gibson, who became the city’s first Black mayor. Baraka continued to maintain a connection to D.C., then very rightly known as Chocolate City, performing his spoken-word poetry and fostering relationships with younger voices.

The week after his passing, I spoke about Baraka’s legacy with two of his D.C.-based protégés, the poets Kenneth Carroll and Tony Medina, during “On the Margin,” a radio show I co-host on WPFW 89.3 FM. The following week, my co-host Josephine Reed and I continued the Baraka-inspired conversation with his longtime friend and collaborator A.B. Spellman, himself a noteworthy poet and critic. This time the emphasis fell more broadly on the Black Arts Movement — its radical context and continuing influence. Both of these episodes (the first of which includes clips of Baraka reading his poetry) are available for streaming below. Continue reading

Interview | Flip Barnes: From the musical melting pot of 1970s D.C. to an experimental present

Lewis “Flip” Barnes brings his four-trumpet band to Bohemian Caverns this Sunday. Courtesy

by Giovanni Russonello
Editorial board

If you keep your ear to the ground on some of D.C.’s most outside-the-box music happenings, you might recognize Lewis “Flip” Barnes. His rustling experimentalism, and his lyrical swagger, if not his name. The Virginia-born, New York-raised, and Howard University-educated trumpeter plays frequently in D.C. with major names in avant-garde jazz: the bassist William Parker, the trombonist Joseph Bowie, the saxophonist Ernest Khabeer Dawkins.

This Sunday, his Nemesis band headlines the first Transparent Productions show at Bohemian Caverns since the club’s month-long emergency closure. Nemesis is an experimental four-trumpet combo that punches and swells and bursts. The only other instrument in the group is a lone guitar, played by Barnes’ son, Asim.

In the interview below, Barnes talks about how his work with William Parker, a free-jazz eminence, has helped shape him; the importance of his tenure on D.C.’s vibrant music scene in the 1970s; and what we should expect on Sunday night. Continue reading

Interview | René Marie, debuting new material in Bethesda, majors in upsetting expectations

René Marie will perform music from her latest CD, a tribute to Eartha Kitt, at Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club on Wednesday. Courtesy Luis Catarino

by Giovanni Russonello
Editorial board

The vocalist and Virginia native René Marie didn’t get her professional career started until she was 42, but her pure voice and undiluted perspective asserted themselves quickly. In the past 15 years, she’s become an international presence in the jazz world, starting some very necessary conversations along the way.

Marie’s second album for Maxjazz, 2001′s Vertigo, earned her a “coronet” from the prestigious Penguin Guide to Jazz, a top honor that most great artists never receive, and since then she has been unfurling her talents on albums and tours that seem to blur the divide between high intellect and lowbrow, sincere and often challenging artwork and a traditionally crowd-pleasuring demeanor. On Vertigo, the divide disappeared with a slow, assured and stirring medley of “Dixie” (a song with origins in blackface minstrelsy) and “Strange Fruit” (an anti-lynching anthem popularized by Billie Holiday).

Soon after she wrote — and continues to perform — a one-woman show titled Slut Energy Theory – U’Dean. In 2008, she sang a version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to the tune of the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” raising critical questions about promises of inclusion, and igniting an inevitable firestorm of debate.

At that moment, perhaps Marie thought back to one of her idols, the jazz singer and actress Eartha Kitt, who was one of the first Black women to play a prominent role on television, and who became ostracized in the United States after making a heartfelt public statement against the Vietnam War during a meeting with Lady Bird Johnson at the White House.

This month, Marie released her ninth full-length album: I Wanna Be Evil: With Love to Eartha Kitt. In the liner notes, Marie mentions that she had never planned to record a tribute album, but she felt a special kinship with Kitt — especially after investigating her story. Marie performs music from the new disc this Wednesday when she arrives at Bethesda Blues & Jazz. She recently spoke to me from her home in Virginia about her late-blooming but powerful career, her views on an artist’s role in society, and the surprises of starting difficult conversations. Continue reading

Interview | Omar Sosa discusses putting a personal spin on Miles Davis’ landmark record, Kind of Blue

Omar Sosa performs this Friday at Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club with his Afri-Lectric Experience band. Courtesy Massimo Mantovani

by Giovanni Russonello
Editorial board

The Cuban pianist Omar Sosa’s latest album is called Eggún, or “spirit of the ancestors” in the Yoruba/Santería spiritual tradition that Sosa celebrates, and it pays tribute to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Like so many, the project started with a grant. But Sosa was hesitant to embrace a commission to readdress the legacy of jazz’s major masterwork. Then he thought, if he could do it his way, he would.

The five slow-burning, vamp-heavy tunes on Kind of Blue helped introduced Indian improvisational ideas and open-faced, one-chord structures to jazz. Sosa could have just put these songs into a modern Afro-Cuban context; his own aesthetic of punctuated Latin groove has broad enough shoulders to carry them in a personal way.

But on Eggún he pulls inspiration from Davis’ later electric work, and he’s decided not to treat the tunes directly; instead he’s working principally with the long and wandering solos that define Kind of Blue, and seem to swim in and out of each other over the band’s sturdy swing. By plucking out individual moments from some of those solos – by the likes of Davis, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane and Bill Evans – Sosa found the threads that would become the themes on his album.

The result is a potent record with the smooth dynamism of a dancer’s step. Sosa arrives in the area on Friday evening to perform with most members of the ensemble that recorded Eggún. He and I caught up last week to discuss his love for Davis’ music, and how he put his own stamp on it.

CapitalBop: Did you feel like the best way to carry forth Miles’ legacy is to do something original?

Omar Sosa: Everybody has their own way to look at the picture, but the way I look at it is, “Kind of Blue is already a masterpiece. What can I do with the music of Kind of Blue?” Being a Cuban musician, of course I can give it a Latin flavor, but when the Barcelona Jazz Festival first asked me to play something around Kind of Blue I said no. I used to listen to this record a lot. I love this record. Continue reading