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-of-towners, 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 life-changing.”
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 .
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 .
Read more from the Spring Arts Preview: