Things to Do

4 Jazz Shows to See This Week: February 22-28

Your Jazz Setlist this week includes Kahil El’Zabar’s annual--and unmissable--African-American History Month performance.

Kahil El'Zabar. Photograph by Sheldon (Shelly) Levy, via Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, February 22

The Washington Post article that you’ve all read by now is absolutely correct. DC jazz is alive and well and doing what it does: improvising, adapting, embracing whatever it can use. Understanding that fact means always being on the lookout for its newest developments and outposts. Here’s one: The Petworth Citizen, a popular neighborhood bar in guess-which-community, has begun a jazz program on Thursday nights. This week it’s a chamber-jazz duet with Elijah Jamal Balbed at the top of the bill. If I often describe Balbed for his hustle and his prolificity, his sound on the tenor saxophone may be a bit undercatalogued. He has a clean, uncluttered sound, melodic ideas without the burden of too much ornamentation, and short note phrases that deploys the long tones sparingly, for maximum impact. He owes a great debt to Dexter Gordon, of whom he is an acknowledged fan, but there’s another influence in there that is harder to pinpoint. It didn’t crystallize until looking through Balbed’s two album releases and spying a particular title: “Lament for Booker.” Yes, Booker Ervin is the secret ingredient that makes Balbed Balbed. He took those two sources and developed his own sound, which he puts to use in collaboration with guitarist Dave Sanders at 8 PM at Petworth Citizen, 829 Upshur Street, Northwest. Free (but order something!).

Friday, February 23

Regular readers of this feature (we have one!) may wish that this column would stop its annual effusions about Kahil El’Zabar’s African-American History Month performance in DC with his Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. Sorry, but this column will not oblige, because that performance is the high spot of the year, every year. El’Zabar is a drummer and percussionist from Chicago, a member of that city’s storied Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians who turns musical performance into a paroxysm of ecstasy that simply has neither equal nor even imitation. It’s a unique—well, except that it almost always begins with El’Zabar’s mesmerizing, koan-like “Pharoah Sanders”—and truly transcendent experience that cannot, should not, must not be missed. Kahil El’Zabar’s Ethnic Heritage Ensemble (which includes trumpeter Corey Wilkes and baritone saxophonist Alex Harding, both of whom double on percussion) performs at 7 PM at Rhizome, 6950 Maple Street, Northwest. $15.

Tuesday, February 27

Should you have been at the Mid Atlantic Jazz Festival last weekend—and last Saturday in particular—you would have had two chances to see the brilliant tenor saxophonist Tedd Baker. He took his regular place as a star soloist for the Airmen of Note, the 18-piece jazz ensemble of the United States Air Force Band (and one of the finest big bands in America). Later that evening, he took a similarly star-solo turn in the Mid Atlantic Jazz Orchestra, the big band assembled for the festival that played in support of one of its headliners, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon. If you missed it, you missed it. But good news is here: You have the opportunity every week to see Baker sounding off with all the power and imagination in his arsenal. He is the leader of a trio that is in weekly residence at JoJo Restaurant and Bar, featuring the equally formidable talents (no musician gets far without working with his equals) Kris Funn on bass and Lenny Robinson on drums. They begin at 7:30 PM at JoJo, 1518 U Street, Northwest. Free. (But order something!)

Wednesday, February 28

“Thick” is one word that comes to mind in describing the sound made by bassist Cheney Thomas. The notes he plays are solid, precise, and heavy. Those are the very qualities that a good foundation—any sort of good foundation— needs. For all that, though, they’re remarkably unobtrusive. Does Thomas let you know he’s there? You bet. Does his playing have muscle? No self-respecting DC bassist’s doesn’t. Even so, Thomas is a master of the bassist’s dying art of Staying Out of the Way. He might be the leader of the band, but he’s there as the central support structure and he’s happy that way. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking that that position makes him less of a worthy way to spend your live-jazz time and money, especially when you’ll be spending it at Alice’s Jazz and Cultural Society. Thomas performs there (i.e., 2813 Franklin Street, Northeast) with his band beginning at 6 PM. $10.

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