Rafiq Bhatia coasts into a Manhattan coffee shop with the easy gait of a man who refuses to carry 100 years of jazz history on his shoulders.
“I have other things to carry,” the 26-year-old guitarist says. “It’s not that jazz smells funny and that I’m trying to stay away from it. I just don’t see my output or my reference points that way. I’ve been really inspired by artists from the jazz community — past and present — and it’s part of what I do. But so are many other things.”
All those other things should come streaming from Bhatia’s fingertips when his quartet headlines the New Vintage Jazz and Wine Fest in Washington on Saturday. (Curated by Washington jazz booster-blog CapitalBop, the inaugural festival also includes performances from local players Kris Funn, Taurus Mateen, Donvonte McCoy, Todd Marcus and the Funk Ark.)
Bhatia’s music signals freedom, but it isn’t lightweight. Listening to him play the guitar can feel like sipping water from a pressure washer. Which is to say, it approximates life in the information age, an era that douses us with data. Which is also to say, the sounds Bhatia makes with his Telecaster can feel profuse, immersive and immense.
“A lot of my favorite music is overwhelming,” Bhatia says. “When you hear a pad on a synthesizer, it’s just a flood of information. . . . I’m trying to approximate that infinity. But nothing is infinite. I feel like lots of activity is an illusion leading toward no activity.”
The riddle of his music — to achieve a certain density imbued with variation — unfurls on the two rookie recordings Bhatia released last year. His debut EP, “Strata,” included a cameo from Antipop Consortium rapper High Priest and an interpretation of “Pickled!” by avant hip-hop beatsmith Flying Lotus. Bhatia’s debut album, “Yes It Will,” came weeks later with an effervescing rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Instead of haggling over jazz’s traditional perimeters, both recordings employ the sonic language of hip-hop and electronic composition to press toward a more interesting future.
Bhatia puts it more bluntly: “I just make music.”
And when he makes it in his Brooklyn apartment, it can take various shapes. Sometimes, he plays along with the ambient sounds around him. Other times, he pantomimes the rhythms and melodies of rap verses by, say, Los Angeles phenom Kendrick Lamar.
Bhatia’s hip-hop baptism took place in second grade in Raleigh, N.C. “Even before I knew what any of it meant, I would memorize what I thought they were saying,” he says of the rappers he would tape off the radio. “I would learn every word and every contour of the production.”
By then, Bhatia had already learned to play violin by ear, but he switched to the guitar in middle school. He eventually enrolled at New York University to study music formally, but the program and the city felt a bit claustrophobic.
“I hadn’t put together any kind of music identity at that point, and I felt like the communities around music were so stratified. I felt like it would have been easy to lose my way,” says Bhatia. “I thought, ‘Maybe I don’t have to be in music school right now.’ ”
So he transferred to Oberlin College in Ohio to study neuroscience and economics, but he took electives with D.C. native Billy Hart, who has famously drummed for Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis and so many others. “When [Hart] was in town, I would cut all of my classes and hang out with him,” Bhatia says. “Being around [him] wasn’t some version of events from the academy. It was the real thing.”
Five days after his 2010 graduation, Bhatia gassed up his ’98 Honda Accord and drove back to New York City, finally ready to start on his first album. There, he found inspiration in life, music and meticulously engineered frozen desserts.
“Have you ever been to Momofuku Milk Bar?” Bhatia asks, pointing north-ish toward the ballyhooed Manhattan eatery. “Their cereal milk ice cream is supposed to taste just like your childhood. But the path you have to take to achieve that result — you need freeze-dried corn powder. And 46 grams of it. But it tastes more like that sensation from childhood than anything in your childhood ever did. It’s more real than your reality.”
He hopes to concoct a version of that himself: memory-torquing music.
“That’s something I actively strive for,” Bhatia says. “The hyper-real.”
Rafiq Bhatia headlines the New Vintage Jazz and Wine Festival at the Half Street Fairgrounds on Saturday at 8:30 p.m. Visit www.newvintage.capitalbop.com for more information.