D.C. Jazz Loft Series recap: In a loft, a gallery and a basement, fire music and fellowship thrive

The JD Allen Trio plays at Subterranean A on June 11. Carlyle V. Smith/CapitalBop

by Luke Stewart and Giovanni Russonello
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CapitalBop began nine months ago, out of frustration. We saw something great – the D.C. jazz scene – that was ripe and waiting to get the respect it deserved. But not enough folks were aware that the sounds of spontaneity were being forged all across town, every night of the week. Soon after starting the site, we decided to add a shot of DIY adrenaline to the scene itself, by presenting our own D.C. Jazz Loft shows in a beat-up old Chinatown studio – the type of intimate, communal space where we believe the music thrives most easily. The shows have always fit neatly within our mission: expose curious listeners to the innovative jazz going on in this town, and remind (or show) them how exciting it is to hear this music live.

The response to the jazz lofts has been anything but frustrating; redoubtable, passionate crowds turn out consistently to these monthly shows. So seven months after our first jazz loft, we brought things up a notch by partnering with the DC Jazz Festival, and reaching out to top-line New York City stars as well as D.C. players to present the D.C. Jazz Loft Series. Now we’re looking back on the series with a debt of gratitude to the performers and listeners who made these shows a resounding success. Here’s our full recap. All photos are from Staff Photographer Carlyle V. Smith; more of his work can be seen at soulfotography.com.

 

June 3

The Brian Settles Trio. Carlyle V. Smith/CapitalBop

The Fridge hosted the first installment of the D.C. Jazz Loft Series, where hometown tenor saxophone great Brian Settles performed with his trio, comprised of bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Tiacoh Sadia. The sound was sparse but bristling, powerful emotion oozing from each note that came out of Settles’ horn. Mateen, a world-renowned musician, plucked his bass like taut elastic, and the result was cooped-up-and-busted-out energy, whether the band was playing Mateen’s own “King Hassan,” an uptempo tune that rides on pitter-patter groove, or a slow blues. The music was Africa. All three musicians are culturally conscious (Sadia, who hails from the continent, sports a “Suport Local Music” sticker on his bass drum) and it shone through in the performance.

Tomas Fujiwara, right, and Jonathan Finlayson. Carlyle V. Smith/CapitalBop

Tomas Fujiwara and the Hook Up headlined the show. Even with two “subs” filling in, the group was a who’s-who of New York City’s best boundary-blurring musicians. Bassist Trevor Dunn, a veteran of expansive prog-rock bands and other experimentalist jazz ensembles, helped the drummer and bandleader create a streaming rhythmic foundation. Vibraphonist Matt Moran contributed precise soundscapes that were at once lush and picked apart. Settles’ quavering tenor and Jonathan Finlayson’s brisk trumpet playing filled out the horn section. Finlayson’s improvisatory concept was the night’s most compelling, as he easily snaked through the intricate rhythms of Fujiwara’s compositions, doubling over himself effortlessly with each syncopated, semi-chromatic line. The District does not see a band like this very often.

June 4

Amy K. Bormet with Chad Hochberg. Carlyle V. Smith/CapitalBop

The Amy K. Bormet Trio started things off at Red Door, the site of CapitalBop’s previous D.C. Jazz Lofts, presenting Bormet’s highly hummable compositions. The pianist and vocalist writes tunes that seem to update the Great American Songbook for the modern day, and relies on formidable keyboard chops to flesh them out. Bormet’s piano solos, colored by her compulsion to sing in unison with her own improvised melodies, were lyrical and deliberate, and she had a strong backing from bassist Karine Chapdelaine and drummer Chad Hochberg. The highlight of Bormet’s set came when she stepped away from the keyboard, and Hochberg put down his drumsticks: Over a spare backing of solo acoustic bass, Bormet offered a slithering, forlorn rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”

Noble, left, and Nate Jolley. Carlyle V. Smith/CapitalBop

The Jolley Brothers, the only D.C.-based headliners in the series, took the stage next, brimming with even more energy than usual. As drummer Nate Jolley remarked, “I usually don’t speak until the end, but the vibe is so great in here I just had to say something.” The twins played as high as their spirits. If only the equipment could have kept up. But even with Noble’s amplifier cutting in and out a few times during his keyboard solos, the pair knew exactly what to do: Nate picked up the slack each time Noble fell silent, and the keyboard solos turned into humorous but comfortable back-and-forths. Along with bassist Romier Mendez, they pushed through, melding the swing of straight-ahead with the gloss and flow of R&B. Halfway into the set, rising D.C. vocal sensation Christie Dashiell joined in. As Nate jokingly praised, she performed “vocals, horns, percussion, piano….” Her voice lifted the music to another level, and became almost a lead horn; a scat solo showed that her vocal instrument could hang with the best alto or trumpet. The set was swinging and freewheeling, full of personality and charisma – just like the brothers Jolley themselves.

***

The second weekend of CapitalBop’s D.C. Jazz Loft Series was defined in part by the extra band member who kept comping just a little too loud during all the solos, and wasn’t picking up on everyone’s hints that maybe he should just get off the stage altogether: the heat. Neither Red Door nor Subterranean A had central air conditioning, but out of the weekend-long heatwave’s urban swelter rose a powerful phoenix of burning creativity. The diverse audience of both young and old struggled through the heat alongside the musicians, but precious few left before the end of each performance – and the payoff was worth every drop of sweat.

June 10

Aaron Martin of OOO. Carlyle V. Smith/CapitalBop

Red Door hosted D.C.’s free jazz powerhouse OOO (Tri-O Trio) as the opener for the wildly original Darius Jones Trio from Brooklyn. From the very beginning of the show, as an audience began to build, it was clear that the night was to be a scorcher in more ways than one. OOO, featuring 63-year-old avant veteran Aaron Martin, demonstrated how to cook in the heat. Drummer Sam Lohman’s frenetic rumble set a mood, while bassist Luke Stewart (a CapitalBop editor and co-author of this post) laid a steady bridge to the saxophone’s melody. This was fire music. The group performed a cacophonous tribute to the Black freedom holiday “Juneteenth,” and ended the set with a deep swing, like a flame slowly flickering into thin trails of smoke.

Darius Jones. Carlyle V. Smith/CapitalBop

The headlining Darius Jones Trio, helmed by one of New York City’s most renowned innovators, took the stage dutifully. Noting the heat from the very beginning, bassist Adam Lane and drummer Jason Nazary were wiping sweat from their brows after simply setting up their equipment. “We’ve played in hotter places,” Lane offered. The group opened with a composition by Jones, an alto saxophonist, entitled “Compassion.” The slow-moving pseudo-ballad set a meditative mood in the space, as if easing into a warm bath on a summer evening. Jones’ saxophone moved through Lane and Nazary’s chopped and tossed rhythms with passionate intuition, expelling a tone that cut the heat like a knife (then, for better or worse, seemed to multiply its scorch). The audience was immediately captivated by the trio’s siren musings. In tribute to one of D.C.’s most beloved native sons, Duke Ellington, the set included an intricate and relentlessly meteoric reworking of Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Nazary produced a tricky funk groove, through which Lane and Jones could easily weave.

June 11

JD Allen. Carlyle V. Smith/CapitalBop

Hidden amidst a block of apartment buildings is Subterranean A, the basement venue that became the setting for the triumphant final installment of the D.C. Jazz Loft Series. Acclaimed tenor saxophonist JD Allen brought a trio that wasn’t his regular working group but offered slightly tweaked and fresh adaptations of his sparing compositions, and laid a firm foundation for Allen’s horn to stir the spirits. The first reaction to his sound and concept on the saxophone is simply, Trane. Like St. John Coltrane, Allen was able to evoke an atmosphere with his music that was spiritually moving and uplifting. With bassist Michael Bates and drummer Jeremy “Bean” Clemons digging in hard, the trio was relentless in its assault on the sonic confines of the basement space, embracing the heat and allowing it to raise the level of musical intensity. As at Red Door, box fans and air conditioning units did little to combat the broiler created by the record-breaking East Coast heatwave. The audience perspired along with the musicians (who were decked out, in typical Allen fashion, in full suits), but the vibe it created was welcome – one of bridling desperation – and the audience turned up its ears to the magic being created.

Elijah Jamal Balbed with Luke Stewart, left, and Giovanni Russonello of CapitalBop. Carlyle V. Smith/CapitalBop

After Allen’s 9 p.m. set, D.C.’s hard-swingin’ tenor saxophone prodigy Elijah Jamal Balbed came on with a quintet of star-studded comrades: guitarist Samir Moulay, drummer Lee Pearson, and brothers Alex and Zack Brown on piano and bass, respectively. The group picked up the energy from the previous set with ease – not to mention from the gig in Baltimore from which they had all just arrived. On the first tune, Balbed’s lush, rippling arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes,” it was clear that the band was already warmed up. From the very first moment, the musicians were on a seemingly relentlessly dive into deeper waters, not allowing the audience time to stick in their toes to test the temperature. (Which – did we mention? – was hot.) The set was comprised mostly of Balbed’s original tunes, including a moving tribute to victims of natural disaster in Japan called “Imanust” (tsunami spelled backward). At only 21 years of age, Balbed comes closer with every performance to being a top contemporary bandleader, and the insistent maturity in his solos can approach frightening levels.

JD Allen. Carlyle V. Smith/CapitalBop

Then, for the D.C. Jazz Loft Series’ finale, JD Allen took to the makeshift bandstand once more for a ’round midnight set. From the first note, it was clear that this was to be a different type of set. The suits had come off, and the ante had been upped during Balbed’s set. The audience’s anticipation for this midnight reprise had been rising steadily throughout the evening. Besides, the level of creative connectivity in the band had been refined, and the trio played with a more keyed-in sense of abandon. It had the feeling of being the last time this group might ever play together. Throughout a nonstop set (Allen never pauses between songs to speak or, it seems, even take a deep breath) that lasted almost 90 minutes – longer than the first – the bandleader went from Coltrane-esque soul rapture to love-making, Dexter Gordon-indebted ballad playing on “Stairway to the Stars,” and back. Clemons’ drumming proved he’d learned valuable lessons from Elvin Jones and Jack DeJohnette, creating the perfect launching pad for Allen’s trenchant statements. On bass, Bates adapted dynamically to Allen’s frenetic melodies, creating a firm harmonic and rhythmic bridge between him and the drums. The few unaccompanied bass solos performed during the set were remarkable, as Bates exhibited a mastery of both plucked and bowed techniques while making convincing musical statements. The audience stayed with the band through the swelter of the night, captivated by the spiritual unfurling of this nascent trio. It was truly a perfect way to end a thrilling series.

Our sincerest thanks go out to Hipnotic Records, which contributed to make the D.C. Jazz Loft Series possible, and our many Kickstarter donors: Catherine Cheney, Tara Vaughan, cody, Thomas Stanley, Nick Williams, Alex W. Rodriguez, Ken Moore, Sheryl Hooper, Shannon Gunn, Matt Haughey, Nathaniel Lewis, Brad Linde, Mike Riess, Cene Ketcham, Jess Zimbabwe, Philip Wolgin, Bobby Beall, Sarah Cowan, Maksim Tsvetovat, Leigh Pilzer, Fernando Benadon, Marianne Solivan, Genevieve DeLeon, Zeromoon, khalle.erby, Sam Feldman, Jaime Savage, Andrea Wood, BASSCAMP, RJ Bee, Pat Walsh, alexis, Matt Lesko, Deborah, zaleem, Philip Bernstein, Jonas Cartano, Ross Stackhouse, Kristy Richardson, Alex Tebeleff, Nick Nicholson, David, Bill, Megan Smith, Susan Mayer, Paolo Valladolid, Nancy Belden, Herb Taylor, Jessica Boykin-Settles, Fred Kendrick, Jillian Van Ells, Jeremy Beales, Ann Hulbert, Ron Weinstock, Feldman/Wexler, John Cook, Richard Russell, Maura Flanagan, Paul de Lucena, David Simone, Thomas J. Riess, Jon Hart, Jason Gropper, Isabel Hernandez-Cata, Sara Donnelly, John Buckley, Diane Colasanto, Michael Shanahan, Jack Polidori and the many others who have declined to be thanked publicly.

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  1. June 11 Subterranean A — Washington at its hot and steamy best. Great show.

    Laura /

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