5 live jazz picks for May in D.C.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, it was pretty easy to predict what venue a band might be playing at, and many jazz musicians had long-established allegiances to certain rooms. That’s still true, but so far it’s looking like one exciting post-lockdown development is that the formulas are getting scrambled a bit. Many acts — both local and national — are now showing up at D.C. venues that they hadn’t been invited to play before.

Case in point: The Messthetics (the punk-jazz trio that blends Anthony Pirog’s guitar sorcery with Fugzai’s former rhythm section: Joe Lally on bass and Brendan Canty on drums) make their Blues Alley debut on May 15. The day before that, bassist and composer Steve Arnold is playing with his expansive, soundscape-crafting band Sea Change to Mr. Henry’s for the first time. In terms of non-local acts, vocalist and composer Bilal will bring his ecstatic neo-soul sound to the historic (and more typically oldies-inclined) Birchmere Music Hall in Virginia on May 22. 

There will also be album-release shows at Blues Alley this month from two of the finest jazz artists in the Mid-Atlantic region, both of whom happen to be activists and organizers as well as bandleaders. First, on May 12, bass clarinetist Todd Marcus celebrates a new album featuring his jazz orchestra. Four days later, pianist Amy K. Bormet celebrates the release of her new trio record.

Music has returned to Dupont Circle’s cozy Tabard Inn, after months of off-and-on scheduling. The setup is much as it was in the before times: duos on Sunday and Monday evenings, led by a rotating cast of Tabard favorites like bassist Victor Dvoskin or guitarists Steve Herberman, Donato Soverio and Geoff Reecer.

Alice’s Jazz and Cultural Society in Brookland celebrated a more formal reopening last month, with Lionel Lyles’ quintet. Keep your eyes peeled for the return of regular programming at this enchanting, musician-run club. Also in Brookland, drummer Julian Berkowitz has resumed his popular Friday residency at Right Proper Brewing Company’s space. The D.C. jazz scene almost feels back to where it was in pre-pandemic times. 

Of course, it bears noting that with Covid cases again ticking up, it’s still advisable to wear a mask, and to make sure you’re fully vaccinated before going out. Below is a list of the five shows that you really should not miss this May in the District. Look to CB’s D.C. jazz calendar for a complete rundown of jazz (and jazz-adjacent) shows and live-streams happening this month. (If anything is missing from the calendar, or if there’s something wrong with a listing on there, please get in touch to let us know.) Happy listening!

Wadada Leo Smith

Thursday, May 5; 7 p.m.
Georgetown Day School (tickets)
[view on CB calendar]

Trumpeter and polymath Wadada Leo Smith has been on the cutting edge of “jazz” for nearly 60 years, though he opts for a more expansive and inclusive term: “creative music.”

His tone with the trumpet is full, bold and forceful, electrifying and honest. Over the last 10 years, Smith has received long-overdue recognition for his artistic prowess, thanks to long-form works like Ten Freedom Summers, America’s National Parks, The Great Lakes Suite, Rosa Parks: Pure Love, all of which ask big questions about what it means to truly be American.

He returns to Georgetown Day School at the behest of his onetime student Brad Linde, to perform a new suite of music composed for the occasion. 

Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival

Friday, May 6 and Saturday, May 7; 7 p.m.
Kennedy Center – Terrace Theater (tickets)
[view on CB calendar]

This annual celebration honors the legacy of Mary Lou Williams, a giant of jazz whose legacy as a pianist, composer and arranger has oft been historically marginalized.

The festival’s two-day-long, 25th anniversary edition will present the duo of Allison Miller and Derrick Hodge, performing their Mary Lou Williams tribute “Soul on Soul;” longtime Mary Lou Williams festival veteran and NEA Jazz Master Terri Lyne Carrington, who presents her genre-blurring, social justice-minded project Social Science; and the global-minded, groundbreaking all-female jazz group Artemis.

Ethan Iverson with the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra

Monday, May 16; 8 p.m.
Atlas Performing Arts Center (tickets)
[view on CB calendar]

Before Bohemian Caverns closed in 2016, the 17-piece Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra commanded the stage every Monday night with a repertoire ranging from Count Basie to Coltrane to band members’ originals. And some truly excellent soloists always strengthened the big band’s arrangements.

For this show, the big band is joined by the famed pianist Ethan Iverson, formerly of the Bad Plus and a major force in modern post-bop. They’ll perform Iverson’s suite, “Bud Powell in the 21st Century.”

Melissa Aldana Quartet

Thursday, May 19 and Friday, May 20; 8 and 10 p.m.
Blues Alley (tickets)
[view on CB calendar]

Chilean-born tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana inherits a number of different but related saxophone legacies: She’s equally influenced by, say, Mark Turner and Sonny Rollins. Aldana is a physical player that leans her whole body into the music, sometimes achieving the honking, brassy tone of Rollins; elsewhere she has a more streamlined, even-toned approach. The first female instrumentalist to win the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition (since renamed for Herbie Hancock), her latest albums have explored themes of self-acceptance and pandemic life. She will perform at Blues Alley with the same stalwart quartet that played on her latest album, 12 Stars: Lage Lund on guitar, Pablo Menares on bass and D.C.’s own Kush Abadey on drums.

William Hooker/Sarah Marie Hughes

Sunday, May 22; 7 p.m.
Rhizome D.C. (tickets)
[view on CB calendar]

Avant-garde drummer and sonic contourist William Hooker is as interested in texture as he is in percussion. His music rumbles, trembles and tenses; it can pulse with real urgency, without charging toward any particular endpoint. He’s been a considerable force in free jazz since arriving on the New York City scene in the mid-1970s, and continues to make his own way. Sarah Hughes is a longtime fixture of both the Beltway and Baltimore jazz scenes, and she can swing soft, sweet and cool like Lee Konitz or swerve in an instant toward the dense yet untethered tonality of Anthony Braxton. Even when her saxophone sounds delicate, there is an unmistakable purity and strength to her playing. (This text is partially adapted from a past listing written by Giovanni Russonello)



About Jackson Sinnenberg

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Jackson Sinnenberg is a broadcast journalist and a freelance writer. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, JazzTimes, Downbeat, NPR Music, NPR.org, the Washington City Paper, On Tap/District Fray Magazine and the blog of Smithsonian Folkways Records. He began covering the city’s music scene for WGTB, Georgetown University’s radio station, where he was a show host, writer, and columnist. He graduated from Georgetown with a bachelor’s degree in American Musical Culture. Reach him at [email protected] Follow him at @sinnenbergmusic.

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