The bass line puls­ing through D.C.’s jazz scene

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPRING ARTS PREVIEW | POP MUSIC - Chris.richards@wash­post.com

On a re­cent Sun­day night, Luke Ste­wart is soak­ing up the moon­light out­side Rhi­zomeDC, pon­der­ing the mu­sic he had just per­formed — a shower of un­re­hearsed fire­works the bassist and his col­lab­o­ra­tors had chan­neled on the spot.

“I mean, life is im­pro­vi­sa­tion,” Ste­wart says. Then he takes a long drag off his cig­a­rette, grins and shrugs, un­wor­ried about re­cy­cling an old jazz cliche. “It’s true,” he ex­hales, “and look­ing at it from that stand­point, im­pro­vi­sa­tion has the pos­si­bil­ity to be re­lat­able to any­body . . . . It’s the only ap­proach to mu­sic that pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity for peo­ple to ex­pe­ri­ence some­thing the world has never heard. And that’s in­fi­nite. Bot­tom­less.”

So is Ste­wart’s de­sire to in­fuse fresh en­ergy into Wash­ing­ton’s ail­ing jazz ecosys­tem. Af­ter 11 years in the area, the 30-year-old Mis­sis­sippi na­tive has made him­self into the most con­sis­tent, co­ag­u­lant pres­ence in the District’s im­pro­vi­sa­tional mu­sic com­mu­nity, or­ga­niz­ing roughly 10 con­certs a month — bills that in­clude lo­cals and out-oftown­ers, young­sters and el­ders, and of­ten Ste­wart him­self.

He plays in at least nine groups — An­ces­tral Duo; James Bran­don Lewis Trio; Heart of the Ghost; Heroes Are Gang Lead­ers; Ir­re­versible En­tan­gle­ments; Laugh­ing Man; Low Ways Quar­tet; Mind Over Mat­ter, Mu­sic Over Mind; Six-Six — and, on top of that, co-pi­lots the evan­gel­i­cal jazz site Cap­i­talBop and hosts a weekly jazz pro­gram on WPFW (89.3 FM). The fuller Ste­wart’s cal­en­dar grows, the more resur­gent the scene be­gins to feel

“I’m all about break­ing the cul­tural hege­mony of New York and L.A., or wher­ever,” Ste­wart says. “D.C. is still an un­der­dog city, so it’s im­por­tant to de­velop the com­mu­nity so peo­ple from New York can come in­ter­act with the thing that’s hap­pen­ing here.”

That’s his pri­or­ity as a pre­sen­ter. As a mu­si­cian, Ste­wart says his great­est con­cern nowa­days is learn­ing how to ex­press his com­mit­ment to so­cial jus­tice through non­ver­bal mu­sic. At a solo gig in Bal­ti­more last year, he felt like he was get­ting close. He took the band­stand that night with­out say­ing a word, and when his set was over, au­di­ence mem­bers asked him whether his per­for­mance had been in­spired by Fred­die Gray, who died in po­lice cus­tody in Bal­ti­more in 2015.

“That’s ex­actly who I was think­ing about up there,” Ste­wart says. “So I know it can hap­pen . . . . When you’re play­ing in­stru­men­tal mu­sic, the most you can hope for is that you’re play­ing with in­ten­tion, with de­lib­er­ate en­ergy, and, hope­fully, the au­di­ence is sen­si­tive to it. If the con­text is right, it can be lifechang­ing.”

Of the dozens of area jazz per­for­mances Ste­wart is in­volved in this spring, you’ll want to make these gigs a pri­or­ity:

On Feb. 11, Ste­wart presents flutist Ni­cole Mitchell’s thrillingly ad­ven­ture­some Black Earth En­sem­ble at Cap­i­tal Fringe. cap­i­tal­fringe.org.

An­ces­tral Duo, Ste­wart’s duo with Bal­ti­more sax­o­phon­ist Ja­mal Moore, gives a free con­cert Feb. 12 at the Martin Luther King Jr. Li­brary. dcli­brary.org/mlk.

Ste­wart joins the pi­o­neer­ing Wadada Leo Smith on Feb. 15 for a per­for­mance of the trum­peter­com­poser’s sweep­ing “Ten Free­dom Sum­mers” at Ge­orge­town Day School. gds.org.

Heart of the Ghost, Ste­wart’s trio with Jar­rett Gil­gore and Ian McColm, per­forms Feb. 25 at Rhi­zomeDC, the city’s most vi­brant venue for underground jazz and ex­per­i­men­tal mu­sic. rhi­zomeDC.org.

On April 21, Ste­wart marks the re­lease of his new solo al­bum with a per­for­mance at Metro Mi­cro Gallery in Ar­ling­ton. (The gallery will also host an art show with con­tri­bu­tions from Ste­wart, open­ing April 8.) metro­mi­cro­gallery.com.

Michael For­manek’s En­sem­ble Kolos­sus re­leased one of the most com­mand­ing jazz al­bums of 2016. Ste­wart is help­ing to bring the group to NYU’s D.C. cam­pus for a con­cert April 22. wapo.st/kolos­sus.

AN­DRE CHUNG FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Bassist Luke Ste­wart says that his great­est con­cern as a mu­si­cian is learn­ing how to ex­press his com­mit­ment to so­cial jus­tice. “When you’re play­ing in­stru­men­tal mu­sic, the most you can hope for is that you’re play­ing with in­ten­tion, with de­lib­er­ate en­ergy, and, hope­fully, the au­di­ence is sen­si­tive to it. If the con­text is right, it can be lifechang­ing,” he says.

Chris Richards

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