Iraqi American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar is one of the highlights of the Kennedy Center’s Direct Current festival. (The Kennedy Center)

Direct Current, the Kennedy Center’s festival of contemporary arts, now in its second year, describes itself as focusing on “new works, interdisciplinary creations . . . and innovative responses to topical concerns.” While all of that is undoubtedly true — a glance at its programming this year will make that clear — it’s not the whole story. Direct Current’s real priority is artists and works of art that are like no other.

For lovers of jazz in which individuality and originality is front and center, that couldn’t be better news. Direct Current’s 2019 schedule features no less than eight of the most iconoclastic, forward-thinking musicians jazz has to offer. Several of them, in fact, would take umbrage at being boxed in as “jazz musicians.” They channel that umbrage into music that refuses such limitations. If the results of those changelings and collaborations are as promising and exciting as what’s below, they can call themselves whatever they want.

(Performances, which are listed in chronological order, are at the Kennedy Center unless otherwise noted.)


Mary Halvorson. (The Kennedy Center)
Mary Halvorson and María Grand

Thirty-nine-year-old Mary Halvorson is not only the most distinctive guitarist of her generation — her barbed, warped sound also has few rivals in any other. (More on her below.) Twenty-seven-year-old María Grand shows potentially the same uniqueness to the tenor saxophone: She navigates dense rhythmic and harmonic paths with warmth and compelling mystery. How these highly individual players will mesh in this off-site “pop-up” concert is a compelling mystery of its own. Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. at the Phillips Collection. $10.

Roscoe Mitchell and Moor Mother

The music of Roscoe Mitchell — saxophonist, avant-garde stalwart and co-founder of Art Ensemble of Chicago — has sometimes been loud and cacophonous. He was always interested in subtle gradations, though — which became more apparent as the 78-year-old aged. The subtleties may be harder to discern in this collaboration with sonic saturation bomber Moor Mother, a.k.a. Camae Ayewa, whose music combines the spoken word, hip-hop and experimental noise. That just makes them more fun to seek out. Thursday at 6 p.m. Free.

Mary Halvorson's Code Girl

Ten years after announcing herself as a challenging new guitarist and composer, Mary Halvorson embarked on her most challenging direction yet: songwriting. The Code Girl project isn’t bound for the pop charts anytime soon, but it has placed Halvorson on a new plane of small-ensemble chemistry, textural tension and abstract but meaningful lyrics. The presence of lyrics puts Carnatic vocalist Amirtha Kidambi at the band’s core, singing melodies that are not always “singable” in the traditional sense. Thursday at 7 and 9 p.m. $20-$35.


Tyshawn Sorey. (John Rogers)
Tyshawn Sorey

Tyshawn Sorey is a fierce, deft drummer with an unfailingly crisp sound. He’s also a composer — and not one who emphasizes the drums. Sorey (who also plays piano, trombone and melodica) writes works with slow, subtle development, exploring attack and decay. Drums are certainly part of it, but 20 minutes might go by (and often do, as on his most recent work, the nearly four-hour “Pillars”) without a tap of the kit. Not for the impatient. March 29 at 7 and 9 p.m. $20-$35.

Amir ElSaffar and Two Rivers

A Chicagoan by birth, trumpeter-composer Amir ElSaffar is Iraqi American by heritage. His band’s name, Two Rivers, refers to the Tigris and Euphrates in Iraq (where ElSaffar studied Arabic music). It also refers to the confluence of two musical streams, traditional maqam and progressive jazz. While he plays trumpet and santur, ElSaffar’s sextet includes Middle Eastern instruments and sonorities as well as jazz rhythms and improvisation. The music, both familiar and exotic, is thoroughly mesmerizing. March 30 at 7 and 9 p.m. $20-$35.

Henry Threadgill's Double Up Plays Double Up Plus

Although Henry Threadgill is one of the most important multi-reedists in the jazz avant-garde, he does not play in the Double Up Ensemble. Instead, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer directs this unique octet in performance of music that is unpredictable even if you know the records (such as 2018’s “Double Up Plays Double Up Plus”). Threadgill’s most alluring talent is irresistible groove and smart harmony in pieces with no discernible tonality or time signature. April 5 at 7:30 p.m. Sold out.

Vijay Iyer Sextet

Pianist-composer Vijay Iyer might be the most heralded jazz musician of the past 20 years, receiving multiple awards, a MacArthur fellowship and an endowed chair at Harvard. His work is dense, experimental and architectural, but also intensely rhythmic, tempestuous and at times wonderfully affecting. Nowhere is that more true than in his sextet, a three-horn ensemble with some of the most cutting-edge improvisers (Iyer not least of them) on the jazz and creative-music scene. April 6 at 7 and 9 p.m. $45.


Magos Herrera, center, and the string quartet Brooklyn Rider. (The Kennedy Center)
Brooklyn Rider and Magos Herrera

The full, open voice of Magos Herrera also has a longing, a melancholy, baked into it. It means that although the Mexican singer usually fronts a progressive jazz ensemble, pairing her with an adventurous string quartet like Brooklyn Rider (whose repertoire ranges from Debussy to Philip Glass to Armenian composer Komitas) is a no-brainer. Their collaboration will celebrate the music of the Spanish diaspora and will assuredly take it in unexpected directions. April 7 at 7:30 p.m. $29.

If you go
Direct Current

Sunday through April 7. Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. For a full schedule, go to kennedy-center.org. Prices vary.