Things to Do

4 Jazz Shows to See This Week: December 28-31

Your Jazz Setlist for the last week of 2017 includes Cyrus Chestnut at Blues Alley on New Year's Eve.
Cyrus Chestnut. Photograph by Tore Sætre/Wikimedia.

Thursday, December 28

When Ben Williams comes home for his birthday, DC celebrates. The acclaimed bassist, whose career as a headliner really began with him winning the 2009 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Bass Competition, is the District’s biggest native jazz star since Shirley Horn. He’s become one of the foremost musical visionaries of the 2010s, one who addresses Michael Jackson and Charlie Parker in equal measure, in addition to being a first-call sideman in New York jazz and elsewhere. (He appeared in Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s biopic of Miles Davis, playing his ax.) Williams turns 33 years old on December 28. A local concert on (or as near as possible to) his birthday is a tradition that now goes back five years and is a key part of the winter holiday calendar (no small thing at the calendar time best known around here for its, um, emptiness). Ben Williams performs at 8 p.m. at The Hamilton, 1400 F Street, Northwest. $20-$45.

Friday, December 29

One is the unquestionable dean of the Washington, DC, alto saxophonists. The other is one of the young scions of that same tradition, dedicated to cultivating the music within the District. No surprise that the two should find a way to meet on the bandstand. Fred Foss is the elder who took the opposite path of the usual jazz musicians: he moved to DC from New York. His mentors include Jackie McLean, Lionel Hampton, and Abdullah Ibrahim; his protégés, however, are as numberless as the stars. (They include stars, among them the abovementioned Ben Williams.) Herb Scott is the younger player, a diminutive fellow with vinegar and fire in his alto sound; Scott’s lineage is the Lou Donaldson tradition, in which bebop and soul-groove meet in delicious communion. As the force behind the weekly jam session at Mr. Henry’s (and now the Capitol Hill Fest as well), Scott stands to become a mentor in his own right. The two are joined by trumpeter Thad Wilson, pianist Hope Udobi, bassist Herman Burney and drummer Kelton Norris at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 400 I Street, Southwest. $5.

Saturday, December 30

Talk to some of the jazz musicians who came up through DC in the 1990s—George Colligan is one of these—and you’ll find that one of the names most often brought up as a beacon at that time is pianist Wade Beach. He’s somewhat less prominent these days, having reached that point in his life and career where profile is less important than simply having good and steady work. But make no mistake: He’s not lost a step, and if anything has gained one or two. Beach burns, with intricate and bluesy bebop lines coming off his keys. Not just bebop, either. He is a master of Afro-Cuban and Brazilian rhythms as well; just because Beach uses a drummer doesn’t mean he needs one. Yet in Juan Megna, he has one with imagination and personality, who does in fact add greatly to the proceedings. They work with the wonderfully cadenced vocalist Karine Martimbianco at 9 and 11 PM at Twins Jazz, 1344 U Street, Northwest. $15.

Sunday, December 31

There are, as always, any number of choices you can make for an elegant—and by the way, jazz-filled—New Year’s Eve in Washington. Blues Alley’s, though, remains a special program.

Some years ago, the vibraphonist Stefon Harris told me something that seemed a bit of a mystery at the time; it has since revealed itself as an axiom. “Intensity has nothing to do with tempo or volume or even touch,” he said. “The slowest, quietest lines can be the most intense. It’s about the emotion you put into it, not how fast or loud or flashy it is.” That, more than anything, may be the lesson imparted by the pianist Cyrus Chestnut. There’s no lack of “intensity’s” lay definition in his playing: technique out to here, some often rollicking rhythms and clanging chords that come from training and first love in gospel music. But when he is at the keys, and you watch him work, you’ll see that his (highly expressive) face betrays some of its most profound emotions when he’s playing some of his least flashy stuff. Yes, blink and you might miss it in his face, but you can’t help but hear the soft center in his playing at all times; his sharp turns and zesty slides down the keys never exhibit the quite wildness you expect. Chestnut isn’t holding back. He’s just expressing his intensity in another sense. The Cyrus Chestnut Trio performs at 6:30 and 10 PM at Blues Alley, 1073 Wisconsin Avenue, Northwest. Dinner and show packages, $110-$160.

Don’t miss a new restaurant again. Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.

Questions or comments? You can reach us on Twitter, via e-mail, or by contacting the author directly:

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.