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Photo: Courtesy of Rosslyn Jazz Fest
Photo: Courtesy of Rosslyn Jazz Fest

AZTEC SUN Bring “Funk with Soul” to Rosslyn Jazz Fest

Though I  have a limited knowledge of cooking, my brief flirtation with Pinterest has taught me that recipes made of unlikely ingredients with proper preparation often turn out to be the most delicious. If AZTEC SUN were a recipe, the 10-piece crew would consist of two cups guitar, one cup of bass, one serving of equal parts keyboard and organ, and a heaping helping of horns and vocals – all served over a foundation of varied percussion.

Though the original band started off with four members and grew from there, each member of the band’s current lineup adds their own special flavor to the mix in an exciting blend of different genres and styles whose talents combine to form an original recipe they like to call “funk with soul.

This Saturday, the band is set to bring this blend of music to Rosslyn’s Jazz Festival, a 28-year tradition that fills Arlington’s Gateway Park with a full day of free musical performances. I sat down to talk to Lee Anderson (backing vocals) and Catch Banning (keyboard/organ) about AZTEC SUN’s new album Everyone, the fest and the strong sense of community their band has formed.

On Tap: How did you all come together and what are the origins of the group?
Catch Banning: AZTEC SUN had two iterations. The original iteration formed seven years ago when Stephane Detchou [the band’s leader, singer and songwriter] sent out a Craigslist post. The original AZTEC SUN was a lot more rock and funk heavy – more of a Red Hot Chili Peppers sound. About a year and a half into that project, band members went to grad school and moved out of state, and that kind of fell apart. Steph put out another Craigslist ad and that’s where I met him – in an audition. We met our original sax players there, and our bass player. We kept in touch after that audition and started to form our own project, and slowly put the pieces together to bring back the band.

OT: How else would you describe your music?
Lee Anderson: The sound is very reflective of the process Catch just talked about. It’s very full and energetic. You can sit at home and turn on the radio and hear some really nice music, but when you come to an AZTEC show, it’s an experience. It’s hard to personify a sound, but if you could hear community – like what the very essence of being communal is – it would sound like AZTEC SUN.
CB: [We use the phrase] “funk with soul” on the website, and I think a great part of our sound is that so much of it comes from [and is inspired by] different eras of music.

OT: How has the group evolved since it was first created?
CB: We are a live band. That has been a core pillar of AZTEC SUN, in that it is important to think of [us] as an entire experience. [That includes] everything from what we are wearing to how we’re performing and what our energy on stage is like. Steph’s done a great job of continuing to challenge us and push us to think about ways just to make this an experience, not just music.

OT: Up until this point, you all have been focusing your energy on live performances. Why did you all choose to start out that way rather than just releasing music and touring based on music you’ve already released?
CB: A word that we use often is “collective.” AZTEC SUN is bigger than the 10 of us. It’s bigger than our partners. We very much see this as a movement in DC and [for] the musicians in other communities we connect with when we play. There’s something that happens with this shared experience of live music; when we see musicians on stage; when we hear live music; when we hear improvisation; [and] when we hear a call to action. People come because they know that’s true. They know they’re gonna get passion, raw energy, joy, an excuse to jump and be around like-minded folks who are incredibly inclusive. I feel like the reason we put so much effort into playing live constantly is because it’s so much more than music. We’re doing this to connect with people. Recording is one way to do that, but we are so much more a live band than a polished studio band. We’re really proud of that.
LA: I think a lot of that also goes back to Steph, who always had a really specific vision for what he wanted this conglomerate to sound like. That tradition for him – that audio legacy – is rooted in the performances that emerged from the Motown Era. Berry Gordy had a very stringent test, the Ham Sandwich Test, that he would put records through before [they] hit the streets. If more people said they would rather buy a ham sandwich than the record, he would tell them to take that shit back to the studio. For us, before we are able to have something we can put online and impress our friends, [we need to make] sure the sound has a certain amount of integrity. We don’t want to just release a bunch of product without people being able to connect with [us]. Nothing makes people feel invested as much as [performing] live, face to face.

OT: Since you have already performed alongside acts like Shaun Martin of Snarky Puppywho has been your favorite artist to perform with live and why?
CB: I think the biggest show of our lives was opening up for Galactic at 9:30 Club. I speak for myself on this, but I know a lot of members really grew up listening to Galactic and Rebirth Brass Band, which is another band we’re about to go on tour with for four nights in the South. For us to get that opening slot in our home turf at 9:30 Club – to play for Galactic – it was an incredible honor to be able to warm up the crowd for a band that’s been incredibly influential in a lot of our lives.
LA: I’m with Catch on that one. That was a particularly amazing night. I’ll also give a shoutout to Alan Evans of Soulive, who we recorded with. Al is, and he doesn’t know this, but he’s kind of like my mentor in some ways.

OT: Speaking of recording your album with him, what was that like?
LA: It was definitely a different type of recording process. I was used to going in the studio and tracking everything out, [but] we definitely did this old school. We put the whole band in one big room and we started playing. We limited each song to three takes and decided we were going to take the best one. It was exciting to me because I had never recorded anything that way before, which is like a shout out to old school, golden era music like James Brown, Motown, that’s how they recorded.

OT: That’s amazing, especially since there are so many of you guys. Three takes in three days, that’s like your lucky number.
CB: There was definitely a lot of pressure going into the project for that very reason, because we were [only taking] a few cuts of each song and we weren’t going to go back and edit everyone’s solos or nitpick. You could feel that trust throughout the entire group – we all knew we were ready. We all knew we were capable of it because we put in the practice to get to this moment. We opened for a band called Everyone Orchestra that uses a shifting amalgamation of different artists around the country to put on live shows. [Al] met us there and that’s kind of where this connection started. 

OT: What can fans of your live performance expect to hear from this album? Do you think the live aspect translated over to the recording really well?
LA: I think if nothing else, they will hear 10 people who really care a lot about each other and trust each other, having fun, and it will be so infectious they’ll have no choice but to have fun with us. They’re going to want to play it everyday and jam out with us. Musically, it’s us – it’s a little bit of everything, but it comes together really nicely.
CB: We’re very proud of [our first] EP, but I think [compared to] when you see a live AZTEC SUN show, the EP is very clean and very studio polished. All of those songs sound drastically different when we play live. This album communicates more of the emotion of the song [and] takes shape in [the] way that we all play it live a lot more.

OT: How are you guys prepping for Rosslyn Jazz Fest and what are you most looking forward to about it?
CB: Cory Henry is a beast! I’m just beyond thrilled we’re on a bill with him. I’m glad we get to play a set warming up the crowd and then [get to] sit back, relax and listen to that man tear up the Hammond. I’m pumped to play an outdoor show, but to watch Cory Henry is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
LA: For me, it’s the fact that we’re going to have so many friends and family there. It’s always cool when I get to go on the road and go to a new place, but it’s even better when I have my people. When I can look out and see folks that I know and love, it’s just a special thing. Also just the energy that happens when you’re home. When you can say “Hey, we’re DC’s own,: even though it’s in Virginia.

AZTEC SUN’s new album Everyone is set to release this November. Join them for their album release show on Saturday, November 10 at Pearl Street Warehouse. For information about the Rosslyn Jazz Fest, visit the event page here

Gateway Park: 1300 Lee Hwy. Arlington, VA; www.rosslynva.org

Photo: Courtesy of Constellation Theatre Company
Photo: Courtesy of Constellation Theatre Company

This Melancholy Play Gives Complex Look at Sadness

Staring into the distance, Tilly, Melancholy Play: A Contemporary Farce‘s star asks, “Do you ever long to cry?”

The play is a can’t miss 100-minute contemplation of what makes us happy, sad and completely depressed, written by Pulitzer Prize Finalist and Tony Award nominee Sarah Ruhl. Under the direction of Nick Martin at Source Theatre, Ruhl’s work addresses a full spectrum of emotions with pure laughter and quick glances.

Tilly is a small-town banker who persistently broods. However, if you look closely, a glimpse of hope is found on her tear-stained face. Perfectly played by Billie Krishawn, Tilly finds despair at every turn, even when she falls in love with her tailor, Frank, charmingly played by John Austin.

The affection between Tilly and Frank is sublime, as the two confide their inner anxieties to one another. However, their romance is only one of numerous awkward attempts at the lead’s hand.

Because Tilly’s overtly beautiful and emotional nature is so enchanting, she unintentionally mesmerizes every onlooker with her exaggerated sighs and romanticized explanations of love.

Her first victim is Lorenzo, played by Christian Montgomery. Lorenzo is Tilly’s eccentric therapist who falls for her somber demeanor, confessing love within minutes of their second session. Montgomery candidly portrays a humorous Italian immigrant who finds solace in Tilly’s musings of sadness and despair; he pounces, causing her to flee.

Next to fall head over heels is Frances, the romantically involved lesbian physicist-turned-hairdresser, who is captivated by the heroine during an uneasy haircut. The character, convincingly played by Mary Myers, is drawn to Tilly’s unexplainable neediness and yearns to be her savior.

The two later reunite with Joan, Frances’ partner. Joan, a nurse played by Lilian Oben, is hesitant, yet instantly taken as well. She attempts to soothe Tilly while insuring Frances keeps her distance.

In the latter half of the production, a pivotal shift occurs at Tilly’s birthday party, where oddly enough Lorenzo, Frances and Joan take part in a game of Duck, Duck, Goose. Neurotically laughing like children high on sugar, Tilly’s grim outlook is spent and she swells with euphoria.

Unfamiliar with the newly elated Tilly, the ensemble begins to revert. Grieving the figurative loss of their depressed friend, Frances, Frank and Lorenzo grow hopeless. They comically fight over bottled tears and ultimately decline further into their own pits of despair before they discover their own true happiness.

The marks of melancholy, though suggested in the title, seem less a farce, and instead realistically compelling, proving a witty take on mental illness in the glamorized 1950s. The satirical moments are most evident and appreciated in the many humorous interactions as they each vie for Tilly’s love.

Melancholy Play: A Contemporary Farce is showing at Constellation Theatre Company’s Source through September 2. Tickets are $19-$45.

Source: 1835 14th St. NW, DC; 202-204-7741; www.constellationtheatre.org

Photo: www.930.com
Photo: www.930.com

Mura Masa Brings His Minimalist Multi-Instrumentalism to 9:30 Club

Alex Crossan took the 9:30 Club stage without much of a fuss on Friday night. Mere moments after the lights dimmed, he took his place while beaming white lights washed over the various musical equipment stockpiled around him. Aside from the myriad of musical tools, there seemed to be a minimalist approach to the stage design, as he opted for only his name – Mura Masa – to appear behind him in white Helvetica on a solid black background.

Virtually every color was represented by lights throughout his set, but only one at a time. The performance itself had very few frills  and honestly, it wasn’t a bad thing. The strategic and somewhat conservative approach to effects was my first clue that the main focus of this show from beginning to end would be the music itself.

Mura Masa did everything himself, from playing drums, guitar and keys to singing and working the soundboard. The 22-year-old, Guernsey-born artist is a mega-multitasker. And aside from being a multi-instrumentalist, he also produces his own music and writes his own songs.

It was amazing to see him constantly rotate from instrument to instrument before chiming in vocally without missing a beat. Since much of Mura Masa’s music features collaborations from artists like A$AP Rocky, Charli XCX, Cosha (who recently switched over from the moniker Bonsai), NAO and more, naturally he needed a versatile vocalist to accompany him for his DC performance. He brought out London artist Fliss as his collaborator for the night, and she took on the various features in her own style.

Whereas Mura Masa couldn’t give us much stage presence (most likely because he was playing literally all of the instruments onstage), Fliss did with ease. She imbued the crowd with energy as she danced across the stage, swinging her long braids to the beats Mura Masa meticulously constructed.

I was very impressed by how similar to Charli XCX she sounded when she sang “1 Night,” and she provided a terrific cover of Cosha’s vocals on “What If I Go?” and “Nuggets,” as well as NAO’s on “Firefly” and her newest Mura Masa collab, “Complicated.

Though Mura Masa’s music lends itself really well to some vocal instrumentation, to me it still seems to be less about what’s being said and more about the overall feeling it gives you. It was a wholly positive experience, though I admittedly wasn’t incredibly familiar with his music beyond the uber popular tracks.

The crowd was comprised of people I’d imagine you’d see at a college frat party, but the overall mood was far less raucous. I’d chalk that up to the music and the way it was presented, because it never really came to a boiling point.

During his last song, Mura Masa expressed his gratitude to the audience for coming out, but much of what he said I couldn’t make out because of his thick British accent. After he left the stage, those of us watching in the audience lingered to see if he might come back out for one more song. But the lights went up and we collectively realized he was gone for the night.

Mura Masa will be on tour on the West Coast for the rest of the month. For more information about tour dates, click here, or check out his website, Twitter or Instagram.

Photo: Aja Neal
Photo: Aja Neal

Morris American Bar Debuts New Fix Bar

On May 14, Fix Bar made its debut as a summer patio addition to Morris American Bar.

A friend and I went by to sample the new cocktails and drinks offered at their outdoor patio preview, but the stormy weather moved the proceedings into the main bar. We arrived before the downpour really started, so we got to see what the setup was meant to look like, but we didn’t spend much time outdoors appreciating it before the storm picked up.

Although the weather discouraged people from bringing their pups, the outdoor patio of the bar is dog-friendly. There was a very casual atmosphere about it, with lots of potted plants and chic metal seating sectioned off on the sidewalk immediately outside the building.

Despite the pouring rain, the bartender, James, was a ray of sunshine. He made us our drinks and gave us a rundown on the drinks chosen to be sampled for the patio bar preview.

According to the website, a “fix” drink is similar to a boozy snow cone. I found that to be true of their drink choices that evening, which had lots of crushed ice and delicious blended cocktails with basis of fruity flavor.

Some of the drinks available to sample at the opening preview were the Maloney Swizzle, which featured rum, mint, and Peychaud’s and tasted like a smokier version of a mojito, with a lot more depth. There also was a Bramble that featured gin, lemon, and blackberry. They also offer a Bourbon Honey fix  with a hint of lemon, a Yankee Julep with rye and mint, and a Sheppard Cocktail made with apple brandy, and Crème de Menthe.

Fix Bar also features crushed ice tiki drinks, local beers, vinho verde and canned rosé . Just a block away from the Mount Vernon Metro station, it’s an easily accessible and fun summer drinking destination whether you’re hopping of the Metro after work or strolling the streets with your pup.

Fix Bar at Morris: 1020 7th St. NW DC; 202-962-0400; morrisbardc.com

Photo by: Krystina Brown
Photo by: Krystina Brown

Matt and Kim Bring “Almost Everyday” to 9:30 Club

Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to see Matt and Kim headline their second sold-out show in a row at 9:30 Club. The raucous euphoria of all the acts combined was the equivalent of eating sugar straight from the bowl or jumping on a trampoline in an anti-gravity chamber.

Future Feats set the precedent with their infectious blend of pop punk-tinged tunes. As the crowd slowly trickled in during their set, their upbeat rhythms helped build excitement for the acts to come. I came in just as they turned the lights up and took a group selfie with the crowd from the stage. Soon after, they finished out their high-spirited performance with “27,” a carefree, acoustic-driven ode to the morning after a night of birthday shenanigans.

Tokyo Police Club took the stage next, a band that I fell in love with in 2011 after the release of their highest-charting U.S. album Champ. Their music is oxymoronically lively and laid back at the same time. David Monks’ vocals lilt so smoothly over the cheery guitars and percussion, like a surfboard that effortlessly careens over whatever kind of wave the sea can throw at it. The sound is so L.A. that you’d never guess they were really from Ontario, Canada.

The camaraderie between members of the band was immediately visible when they started performing. During the guitar solo in the first song, and for a few other moments later on in the show, all of the band members circled the drummer and jammed together, which showed how much they genuinely enjoy playing music with each other.

I was excited to hear some of my favorite songs by them live including “Breakneck Speed,” “Frankenstein,” “Wait Up (Boots of Danger)” and “Argentina (Parts I, II, III)” as well as some of the newer tracks from their dual-part 2016 EP Mellon Collie and the Infinite Radness (a nod to the legendary Smashing Pumpkins album) – and their new single from this year, “New Blues.”

Matt and Kim were the last to grace the stage, but first members of the sold-out crowd greeted them by (successfully) starting the wave and sending it up to the rows in the balcony. The dynamic Brooklyn-based duo built on that energy with their entrance, backed by “Für Elise” and what sounded like a baby reading the script projected on their background display. Right when it got to the part where it said, “Hold on, it might get bumpy,” the dude standing next to me bumped into me and spilled his beer on my arm – as if on cue. That was an indicator of the messiness and chaos to come, but strangely, it only made me more excited to see what Matt and Kim would get up to next.

Their entire approach was reminiscent of a mixed-media art project, which is fitting since this pair met at Pratt Institute. It is a trademark of theirs to incorporate other artists’ work into their shows, and somehow it all works well together. Going beyond the standard fare of lights and smoke, they projected a mishmash of graphics (like one of Kim dancing in front of the Brooklyn Bridge) and memes (like the classic Oprah meme) on the display that played on the wall behind them for the duration of their set, and had little dance breaks to songs like DMX’s “Party Up (Up In Here)” and Princess Nokia’s “Tomboy.”

Our show morphed into an album release party since Almost Everyday was set to drop that midnight. To celebrate, they threw T-shirts, confetti, balloons, blowup dolls and pool floaties (which became vehicles for crowd surfing) out into the audience. They also performed a few tracks from the new release like “Forever,” and an older song of theirs called “Yeah Yeah” that’s been pulled from all streaming services due to record label shadiness (according to Kim).

Matt also took a moment to give us some background about the band’s hiatus last year, which was due to Kim’s meniscus and ACL injury. Matt says he is “more proud of this album than anything in his life.” After the hiatus they were both happy to be back touring because, he said, “I’ve done this for my entire adult life and this is all I wanna do.”

But besides Matt and Kim’s high-energy performance, what really made this night so much fun was the crowd. Kim actually made a little mistake during one song because she said she was so amazed by how lively the audience was. Toward what I thought would be the end of their set, they played “Daylight” (the only song of theirs that I knew well before that night) and went offstage. The crowd was so hype that they came back and did another song for us. This whole night reminded me of what’s so special about concerts that aren’t in large stadiums, and that’s being able to interact with and experience music with the people who make it up close.

For more on Matt and Kim, click here.