Live review | Elijah Jamal Quartet just might be D.C.’s next big thing

Saxophonist Elijah Jamal Balbed and drummer Allen Jones took chances at HR-57, and it paid off. Giovanni Russonello/CapitalBop

by Giovanni Russonello
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Take note, Washington, D.C.: The Elijah Jamal Quartet appeared last night at HR-57 in its first show ever as a group, and from the sound of things, this was the start of something very big. Sure, the famous Eric Lewis (a.k.a. ELEW) showed up for a much-anticipated and rollicking solo show at the end of the night, but it was the local band that provided the most excitement.

Elijah Jamal Balbed, 20, was recently named D.C.’s Best New Jazz Musician of 2010 by the Washington City Paper, and is known around U Street for his hard-blowing, bluesy sound, in the tradition of the hard-bop tenor greats. His Saturday night residency at Utopia, with the Elijah Jamal Experience, is a major draw for listeners and fellow jazz musicians. But at HR-57 last night, he marked the inauguration of a new group, the Elijah Jamal Quartet, featuring Hope Udobi on piano, Eric Harper on bass and Allen Jones on drums.

Admittedly, things didn’t start smoothly. At around 9:30, the normally unflappable Balbed was getting worried. This was his first gig as a headliner at HR, a popular 14th Street club, and his 16-year-old drummer was a half-hour late. Eventually, the band started anyway, and it wasn’t until the makeshift trio was in the middle of its first tune, a mid-tempo rendition of “Love for Sale,” that Jones charged through the front door with cymbals and snare drum slung over his shoulder. But even after Jones joined, the group’s playing was halting, still searching for footing while the players made their way through hard bop classics and originals. The next few tunes – including Balbed’s signature composition, the robust “Brief Encounter” – had auspicious moments during Balbed and Udobi’s solos, but didn’t seem to have gotten enough starting fluid.

When the quartet returned for a second set, the entire dynamic began to change. It started with a propulsive, full-bodied take on Cedar Walton’s swingin’ classic “Firm Roots,” and for the first time the group was running on all cylinders, hitting together with full command. These young musicians were mastering the hard-driving essence that makes classic 1950s jazz so irresistible. An inquisitive rhythm section dug into deep, syncopated swing, and Balbed’s playing found the comfort and confidence that mark his weekly gigs at Utopia.

On “Solar,” the alchemic Miles Davis classic, Udobi tore apart his solo like it was pieces of paper; he mingled jagged, Monkish arpeggios with hyper-charged runs. Balbed’s solo, meanwhile, lifted the chord changes’ poetic, major-minor modulations to soaring heights.

But two particular moments came to define the night: when the quartet took a revolutionary turn during the first minute of “Solar,” and then again at the end of the Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti.” For about a minute each time, the group played games with the tempo – rendering it totally mutable – and each player pursued a reactive but independent path. At the start of “Solar,” there was a glimmer of 7/4, then near ambiguity, but it was keyed-in, and sprung from the group’s collective energy.

Udobi’s acerbic dissonance and Harper’s elastic swing pushed against Balbed’s soulful wanderings, which he strengthened by leaving generous space. All the while, Jones alternately recalled greats Nate Smith and Paul Motian by refusing to commit to a single idea. The Elijah Jamal Quartet was creating a multi-layered, cohesive musical experiment, a different level of seek-and-ye-shall-find musical liberation.

For a few moments there toward the end of the night, the group was playing with the innovative freedom of New York City’s top post-bop musicians.

If they stay together and continue to innovate like this, the Elijah Jamal Quartet could become the “next big thing” of D.C. jazz, up there with the Young Lions 10 years prior. Balbed’s style is usually heavily tied to the hard-bop tradition, and within that idiom his quartet easily demonstrated its primacy. But the group could well transcend this to become the definitive post-bop quartet in D.C., a city that has loads of great jazz but lacks very much experimental bop. That is, if they decide to go down that road.



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