by Giovanni Russonello
Imagine yourself traipsing down U Street on a Wednesday night in November 2009. Walking toward 14th Street, you sense a warm glow to your left. You slide down the three steps and into the doorway at 1344 U St. You’re in Café Nema, and Elijah Jamal Balbed, a slight, shaggy-mopped 19-year-old, is playing the saxophone. He swings and bleats, cutting notes open with a flick of the wrist before squeezing them dry. The quiet man sitting in the right-hand corner, under the window, plucking his amber-tinted electric bass, is Tarus Mateen. You can’t catch much of his downturned, sunglass-hidden face, and even still you probably wouldn’t recognize him, but he’s one of the world’s most respected jazz bassists. On drums, Lenny Robinson is sitting in. As with any great drummer, each glinting stroke of his ride cymbal is a mobilization, a spark, a firecracker tossed at his bandmates’ feet. By the doorway, a handsome young cat in a fedora lurks, one foot angled toward the door but both ears committed to the music. It’s the pianist Hope Udobi, a frequent presence at the R&B club Indulj Lounge over by 12th and U, and at Twins Jazz near 14th.
Magical nights like this one at Nema came to a sudden end last year, when the club closed. But the rest of the District’s jazz community has been quick to fill in where Nema left off. One prime example is CapitalBop’s D.C. Jazz Lofts, where the sense of community has been recreated mightily. This month, we’re hosting our eighth loft, and all the cats named above will be there to perform.
Mark your calendar for this Sunday, Nov. 13. Doors open at 7 p.m., and as usual, admission is free – though we suggest a $10 donation to the musicians. This loft will be doubly exciting because it’s not just a CapitalBop event: We’ve partnered up with the radical film extravaganza Reel Fest DC, and the show will serve as the official after-party for the four-day-long festival. With jazz, merriment and filmographics combined, there’s no reason not to swing by. (Particularly if you’re a musician, since there will be a jam at the end of the night.) Tell your friends, and come enjoy the hang.
LENNY ROBINSON’S MAD CURIOUS
Drummer Lenny Robinson emits a remarkable fire and verve, and he always seems to be raising the intensity level, two notches at a time. He’s tasteful but impassioned, which explains his choice of sidemen – bassist Tarus Mateen and saxophonist Brian Settles. Mateen plays in Jason Moran’s famous Bandwagon Trio, which seems to win international accolades every time it releases an album (NPR thought its latest was 2010’s greatest jazz record), and Moran himself has called Mateen the band’s “protagonist.” A rare compliment for any bass player. Settles, meanwhile, is a sensitive and brooding tenor man who is as comfortable swinging in homage to his idol, Sonny Rollins, as he is wailing through free jazz explorations. In Robinson’s Mad Curious trio, both styles – and so many others in between – are sure to be heard.
ELIJAH JAMAL BALBED QUINTET
Saxophonist Elijah Jamal Balbed, a mere 21 years old, is already a leader on the D.C. jazz scene. Not yet graduated from college, he’s one of the most in-demand and highly regarded tenor players out there, with a grounding in the hard-bop greats (Dexter Gordon, Hank Mobley) but a trenchant curiosity that in recent months has pushed him to start building out from that cornerstone. Balbed’s debut CD is recorded and ready for release, but the best way to hear him – as with any serious improviser – is live, at the helm of his own group, displaying his taut compositions and refashioning classic bop tunes.
Elijah Jamal Balbed Quintet, “Imanust” (live at Red Door)
[audio:https://www.capitalbop.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Elijah-Balbed-Quartet-2.mp3|titles=Elijah Balbed Quartet – “Imanust”]
HOPE UDOBI TRIO
Pianist Hope Udobi, like Balbed a deft young bebopper who played in the D.C. Jazz Loft’s original U St. All-Stars band, knows how to swing hard, but he’s clearly learned just as much from his Afro-Cuban jazz records and his Golden Age hip-hop albums. Check the soulful syncopation in his left hand that flows smoothly into piercing Latin montunos, built of impossible angles and upside-down geometry. In a trio setting, Udobi’s pianism and range will be front and center.