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McKinley Dixon Leads Jazz Renaissance at The Camel

From D’Angelo, Aimee Mann and Lucy Dacus to GWAR, Strike Anywhere and Lamb of God, Richmond has fostered many different influential artists over the years. Despite this fact, only recently has the city gained nationwide recognition for its contribution to music and art.

Beyond those few artists who break through on a national level, Richmond is know to many as a home to DIY punk, metal and math rock. While that is certainly true, our reputation fails to recognize the backbone of our music scene, a style that hasn’t seen the spotlight it deserves in many, many years: jazz.

Richmond can lay claim to it’s share of jazz history from legendary tap dancer and entertainer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and his band to Miles Davis collaborator Lonnie Liston-Smith. But aside from the Richmond Jazz Festival, the scene isn’t often recognized and celebrated in the way many other styles of local music are.

Today, aside from a few standout crossover artists, the city’s amazing jazz shows often slip under the radar even for folks deeply engaged with live music. But the tide seems to be turning as evidenced by Thursday night’s bill at The Camel, hand-picked by McKinley Dixon and booked by Jet Trails Media. From top to bottom, the night felt like being at the center of a true jazz revival.

The evening opened with bassist and composer Kevin Eichenberger’s adventurous and sometimes slightly confounding group, CGI Jesus. Joined by James Gibian on drums, Garen Dorsey on saxophone and Brett Jones on guitar, the band rolled through a small number of lengthy free jazz pieces. They effortlessly tapped into influence from some new Chicago-scene artists, such as Jeff Parker and Jaimie Branch, while also bringing in some more aggressive and genre-spanning sounds like those I’ve heard from groups on John Zorn‘s Tzadik label. All this made for an extremely expressive performance, and most importantly, set the tone for the night; this was a show built around an all-encompassing lineage of jazz.

Next was John Hulley’s 13 piece big-band powerhouse, Brunswick, who take their name from Hulley’s home town of Brunswick, Maine. I don’t think I’d ever seen so many people on stage at The Camel before Thursday.

Hulley, a touring member of Sufjan Stevens‘ band and trombonist of No BS Brass, served as both a trombonist and conductor for the group. His ten piece ensemble set up on stage, including frequent co-conspirators Reggie Pace and David Hood of No BS, and had a tiny area near the front where he was precariously perched.

Throughout the set he deftly bounced on and off the stage, ripping his own trombone lines and directing the group to peak energy. After their set, I felt absolutely lifted as their music made me both want to move and listen carefully to the complexity of the compositions. I, for one, am really looking forward to seeing what they do for their headlining gig at The Broadberry this coming Saturday.

After Brunswick came Pressure Fit, the project of Reginald Chapman, another member of No BS Brass who has played with Matthew E. White, The Mountain Goats, Foxygen, and Megafaun. The band brought a more traditional jazz sound to the evening through their gorgeous and harmonically intricate compositions. Heavily featuring flutist/singer Gina Sobel, an extremely talented songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from Charlottesville, the group breezed through Chapman’s compositions, which mixed jazz instrumentation with some really evocative chord progressions and vocals that added a tinge of R&B.

The evening’s curator, McKinley Dixon, took the stage last (or McKinley Dixon & Family as he said during their set, playfully referencing the larger group of musicians with which he was playing). I’ve seen Dixon perform a number of times as he has risen to near ubiquity in the local music scene, and it’s always been tremendous and affecting. But there was something really magical about seeing him up there with his biggest group yet.

The lineup for his band has been on a rotation, but for this show the group featured the majority of the artists that have been backing him up regularly. Over top of Jake Adams and Garen Dorsey’s guitar and keys, Nathaniel Clark and Marissa Resmini added flourishes of melody with sax and violin, while Kevin Eichenberger and James Gibian held the rhythm section down tight. They rolled through their set, riding high on the energy of all the awesome bands that preceded them before inviting two members of Pressure Fit on stage to guest star on their last couple of tunes.

McKinley commanded the stage while delivering his emotional and insightful lyrics with physicality and conviction. Whenever I am at a McKinley Dixon show, I always want to move to the music because the groove is so infectious, but I find myself not being able to get lost in it. This isn’t a negative whatsoever; McKinley’s lyrics are sobering and consistently bring me back to reality, reminding me to be critical of the society that gives me rights while simultaneously withholding them from others.

Thursday’s show at The Camel was really a testament to the rewards reaped from truly listening to what others have to offer. Whether it’s something familiar or something uncomfortable, there is always value in taking the time and putting effort into really listening to the music that other human beings have put their heart and soul into presenting.

Check out photos by Ashley Travis and Rebekah Brunson below:

CGI Jesus

Brunswick

Pressure Fit

McKinley Dixon & Friends