Live review | Brian Settles at Bohemian Caverns: Artist-in-resonance

Brian Settles, shown here during an earlier performance at Bohemian Caverns, wrapped up his residency on July 19. Giovanni Russonello/CapitalBop

by Luke Stewart
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Brian Settles
Bohemian Caverns
Tues., July 19, 2011

Most of the D.C. jazz community recognizes Bohemian Caverns as the number-one club to hear forward-reaching music. (We’re not the only ones to say so). The storied venue’s most important contribution is its support for local musicians, and their endeavors. At regular Monday-night performances by the popular Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra and Saturday late-night jam sessions at “The Hang,” local greats and growing talents can showcase their creativity and hone their skills.

Like a true jazz institution, Bohemian has also maintained a strong artist-in-residence series, showcasing individual local musicians in a series of performances over the course of a month. July’s artist was D.C.’s tenor saxophone trailblazer, Brian Settles, who last Tuesday performed the last of three shows in conjunction with his residency.

Settles is a longtime veteran of the Bohemian Caverns stage, a principal member of the club’s previous big band – the Thad Wilson Jazz Orchestra – and, more recently, a bandleader there in his own right. At Bohemian and elsewhere, he has forged a reputation as one of the city’s most inventive bop tenor players. He also spent quite a bit of time cultivating his creativity in the fertile “downtown scene” in New York, particularly during his college years in the 1990s, working with many well-known names in the city’s avant-garde jazz community. It’s no wonder his tenor concept is so original. He has successfully blended different styles and incorporated them into his own original sound.

This was all on display last Tuesday, when Settles was joined by fellow D.C. jazz masters Allyn Johnson on piano, Tarus Mateen and Eric Wheeler alternating on bass, Kush Abadey on drums and Settles’ wife Jessica Boykin-Settles on vocals. Wheeler joined him during the first set only, with Mateen fulfilling the bass duties for the rest of the evening. Both sets presented an eclectic mix of different jazz concepts, each beginning with a slow mediation that adequately set the tone for an hour-plus of creative expression.

Settles’ creeping ferocity was propelled beautifully by the powerful versatility of the rhythm section as the tunes progressed. They ranged from contemplative avant stylings to slow ballads to up-tempo, rhythm-changes swingers. Boykin-Settles performed a couple of her original tunes and arrangements, including a beautiful, Roy Ayers-like arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s “Night Dreamer,” a candidate for the highlight of the performance. The band clearly had lots of fun; cries of “yeah” and “oooooh” were commonplace on the stage; and smiling teeth were everywhere as the great musical moments flowed.

Audience attendance, which at the first week’s show had hovered around 10, grew into a packed house by this last performance. This is the true testament of a great band – word had spread. The first performance was so mind-blowing, and it inspired such buzz among the jazz crowd that the audience grew to capacity over the course of just two more weeks. By last Tuesday’s performance, the crowd was just as exuberant as the band. Each note kept people at the edge of their chairs. Supportive shouts and applause were commonplace as the band elevated the energy level to the maximum. At one point, the audience all shouted in ecstasy as the band reached a climax during a burning rendition of Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo,” Abadey’s aggressive polyrhythms dissolving into a simmering roll, then a liberated crash.

As the artist-in-residence series continues, it will not only be an exhibition of D.C.’s local talent, but a test of how the musicians can inspire and resonate with an audience. In Settles’ case, the outcome was clear: He succeeded.

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