4 Jazz Shows You Should See This Week: December 14-20

A free holiday concert featuring Turtle Island String Quartet with Irish fiddler Liz Carroll is just one item on your Jazz Setlist.
Turtle Island String Quartet. Photograph by Jati Lindsay.

Thursday, December 14

You probably know Nat “King” Cole’s pop music (and if you don’t, what are you waiting for?). But jazz people also know him as a consummate pianist who played with Lester Young and led his own trio, often with a grittier, bluesier sound than “Mona Lisa” and “(We’re) Too Young.” Well, Nat Cole also had a brother, also a singer/pianist, named Freddie Cole. Freddie manages to split the difference between the two sides of Nat, in the sense that he plays piano and sings much of the same pop repertoire (with some jazzier tunes thrown in as well), but with just a little bit more of a jagged edge. Freddie is not an imitator, though; he’s an artist in his own right, worth examining in that vein, and a lively and friendly raconteur from the stage as well. He and his trio perform at 8 and 10 PM at Blues Alley, 1073 Wisconsin Avenue, Northwest. $35.

Saturday, December 16

It’s not quite right to identify Michael Bowie with the “fringe.” Bowie is one of the longest-working and most beloved of DC jazz bassists and is a former protégé of the great Keter Betts, the dean of the local bass tradition. Still, his project of about the last two years, Blast, is certainly a unique conception in any musical tradition. Bowie fuses jazz, rock, hip-hop, soul, and more in a form that is entirely his own: a brash, aggressive sound that headbangers will love and may leave jazz fans scratching their heads, at least until they start hearing the details involved. In the last year, Bowie turned toward a serrated political commentary, launching a video single of the Stevie Wonder protest anthem “You Haven’t Done Nothin’.” No doubt Blast continues muckraking in that same direction. MBowie and Blast perform at 7:30 p.m. at Capital Fringe, 1358 Florida Avenue, Northeast. $15 advance, $20 doors.

Sunday, December 17

No matter how long they’ve played together—and it’s well past the 30-year mark now—Turtle Island String Quartet retain their ability to surprise. They’ve got the standard chamber quartet configuration of two violins, viola, and cello. They just use it to assail the jazz standards, as well as new tunes that are even less what you’d expect from a string quartet. (John McLaughlin, anyone?) But their repertoire is even larger and more diverse than that, as they’ll prove in this holiday concert and collaboration with Irish fiddler Liz Carroll. The program is called “A Winter’s Eve,” and it features—get this—ancient Celtic songs of the winter solstice; Irish Christmas reels; Hanukkah songs; a Hindu spiritual; and, of course, what holiday program would be complete without Miles Davis’s “Seven Steps to Heaven”? Turtle Island String Quartet and Liz Carroll perform at 4 PM at the National Gallery of Art, Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue, Northwest. Free.

Wednesday, December 20

If you have heard the Greater U Street Jazz Collective’s 2013 recording, Ballin’ the Jack, you’ll know that there are a few skits punctuating the album, leaning in most cases toward the comedic. It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t work on the bandstand, though, so the focus will be purely musical. And that’s a treat. The seven-piece ensemble led(-ish) by bassist Thomas View does as much as any jazz band you’ve heard to follow a piece of wisdom from jazz great Art Blakey: “Don’t play the changes, play the tune.” The tunes themselves are lyrical, catchy things that celebrate the spirit of classic straightahead jazz (the band name isn’t about urban geography but about the legacy of African American music and culture) without pretension or overcomplication. Moreover, the soloists work lines and phrases that are logical and relevant to those tunes and the atmospheres they work to evoke. Theirs is the sort of gig to which you take your friends to shut down their complaints that jazz is all inward and self-indulgent. And this gig is in the sort of venue that counters that complaint, too. The Greater U Street Jazz Collective performs at 6 p.m. at Alice’s Jazz and Cultural Society, 2813 12th Street, Northeast. $10.

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Michael J. West is a jazz journalist and critic who lives in DC. He began contributing to Washingtonian in 2017. He is also a contributor to the Washington Post, Washington City Paper, JazzTimes, and Downbeat. His work has appeared in Slate, the Village Voice, Bandcamp, and NPR.org.