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Scene Stealers: A jazz critic looks back at his favorite moments on the local scene 

click to enlarge James “Saxsmo” Gates

Ash Daniel

James “Saxsmo” Gates

To start with the year's flagship events, there was a whole lot of music before the Richmond Jazz Festival ended in a midsummer deluge. Most memorable sets there: incredible vocalist Jazzmeia Horn and the truly epic funk craziness of George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic on their farewell tour. The Richmond Folk Festival remains the area's cross-cultural crown jewel. The highlight was the high-energy, history-drenched, massively attended set from gospel legend Mavis Staples.

One beneficiary of the Folk Festival opening local ears to global music is Richmond's vital world music scene. This includes but is not limited to the interconnected Latin groups, Bio Ritmo, Miramar and Quatro Na Bossa, the Ethiopian-themed Afro-Zen Allstars, and this year's breakout, Turkish language Yeni Nostalji.

Elsewhere, the Broadberry, which joined forces with Trigger System booking this year, continues to put together memorable artist mash-ups, notably this year's All Day Block Party, headlined by No BS Brass, fortified with vocalist Sam Reed, with Thorp Jenson, Spooky Cool, Angelica Garcia, Prabir Mehta and Brunswick.

Local artists are carrying the Richmond flag far beyond the local scene. Singer and songwriter Lucy Dacus continues her national and international tour supporting a sophomore album that made many national best-of lists, including Paste's No. 1 album of the year. Upfront city champions No BS Brass played top summer festivals, including Monterrey Jazz and Telluride. Butcher Brown toured with Kamasi Washington, arguably the top saxophonist of 2018. Spacebomb Records' Andy Jenkins is touring the United Kingdom through January. Natalie Prass, on a new label but with an all-Richmond crew, expanded the hope and heartbreak palette of her debut into danceable political commentary with "The Future and the Past." Spacebomb house composer Trey Pollard released "Antiphony," an impressive set of chamber string preludes and fugues.

Meanwhile, a new generation of Richmond artists, including Kenneka Cook and Calvin Brown, made recording debuts, as well as a long overdue debut from Mekong Express.

Regarding venues, the best places to hear every note remain the Jam Inc. concerts at In Your Ear studio or the Tin Pan listening room, although the state-of-the-art sound system and banked seating at the Institute for Contemporary Art may rocket that to the top. Bigger names, albeit not big enough to challenge the barnlike acoustics of Altria Theatre, come to the Modlin Center, notably this year the Maria Schneider Big Band and Ulysses Owens' "Songs of Freedom" featuring Rene Marie.

The best regular jazz scene is Macon Mann's Wednesday night series at the Rabbit Hole downstairs at Vagabond, where local heroes such as Brian Jones, James "Saxsmo" Gates, Marcus Tenney, Charles Owens and Reginald Chapman alternate with a rapidly rising next generation, including saxophonists Chet Frierson and Nathaniel Clarke, drummers Cleandre Foster, Kofi Shepsu and Bryan Connelly, and guitarist Morgan Burrs. Andrew Randazzo's Big Band is always worth catching there, even if the crowded-in players fill up an appreciable amount of the floor space. One of the best events of the last weeks of 2017 was Randazzo's "Charlie Brown Christmas"-themed holiday show. For those who missed it, there is a chance to catch it Dec. 19, combined with Randazzo's other group in what Devonne Harris calls "A Charlie Butcher Brown Christmas."

As always, the intimate Saturday night sets at the Barrel Thief are a treat. Keep an eye out for great players brought to town by the Richmond Jazz Society, and local players at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts every Thursday. And free Virginia Commonwealth University recitals remain one of the area's great values, even if the only safe way to park within a quarter mile requires payment.

So much music. Even after more than 100 performances in the past year, far more were missed. Apologies to all the worthy artists bone-headedly omitted.

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