Play (Lists)

District Jazz This Week – Spoiled for Choice

by Michael J. West

Wednesday, May 29
If you’re anything like me, you hear the words “French gypsy-jazz guitarist Stephane Wrembel,” your first thought is of Stéphane Grappelli, who was a member of the original French gypsy-jazz ensemble: The Quintette of the Hot Club of France. Well, if you’re anything like me, you’re a dummy, too, because Grappelli didn’t play guitar. That was Django Reinhardt. Stephane Wrembel, however, plays gypsy-jazz guitar in the Reinhardt mode—if you saw the Woody Allen films Vicky Cristina Barcelona or Midnight in Paris, and heard on the soundtrack that guitarist with the distinctly old-world European flavor? That was Wrembel. Inside that flavor, though, is a flawless time feel and beautiful, crystalline articulation—even on those twisty tendrils, you can make out each and every note. On a solo performance it’s a wonderful thing; in a performance with his quartet (second guitarist Thor Jensen, bassist Ari Folman Cohen, drummer Nick Anderson) it’s even more beguiling, with the complex harmonies and pronounced rhythms. Try it; you’ll like it. Stephane Wrembel performs at 8 p.m. at City Winery, 1350 Okie Street NE. $20-$28.

Friday, May 31
The great drummer Art Blakey was also the great teacher Art Blakey. The man dedicated his life to leading bands (the Jazz Messengers) that he staffed with young musicians that would receive tutelage from him, then go on to spearhead new generations of jazz greats. The list is vast, running from Jackie McLean to Ralph Peterson. That last is a special case: One of only two drummers whom Blakey took on as protégés. Peterson is one of the many who has paid their debt to him forward, becoming a respected educator alongside his career as a spectacular drummer. This time, though, Peterson pays direct tribute to Blakey, who would have been 100 years old in October. He leads an ensemble called the Messenger Legacy, stocked with veteran Jazz Messengers from several eras: saxophonists Bill Pierce (tenor) and Bobby Watson (alto), trumpeter Brian Lynch, pianist Geoffrey Keezer, and bassist Essiet Essiet. All of them are great, and together they are fire. Ralph Peterson & The Messenger Legacy perform at 7 and 9 p.m. at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, 2700 F Street NW. $30-$40.

Saturday, June 1
Portland, Oregon-based pianist and composer Darrell Grant wrote Step by Step: The Ruby Bridges Suite in 2012—a dramatic, choral, large-scale piece of jazz in honor of the brave little girl who desegregated New Orleans public schools in 1960. What better venue for a piece like this to be performed than D.C.’s own National Museum of African American History and Culture? In accordance with its heavy gospel influence, this performance features the choir from All Souls Unitarian Church alongside a group drawn from Howard University’s a cappella jazz ensemble Afro-Blue, as well as a stellar group of instrumentalists that includes the great drummer Brian Blade. Joining Blade are saxophonist Rahsaan Barber, guitarist Lindsey Beth Miller, cellist Cremaine Booker, bassist Clark Sommers, and composer Grant himself on the piano. It’s a beautiful, thoughtful piece that evokes not just Bridges but the entirety of the Civil Rights movement—well worth your time and attention. Step by Step: The Ruby Bridges Suite will be performed at 1 and 4 p.m. at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, 1400 Constitution Avenue NW. Free (but preregistration is required at
In jazz circles, Carlos Henriquez is not an easy fellow to miss. He’s the longtime bassist for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, as well as for JLCO leader Wynton Marsalis’s own quintet. If his instrumental choice makes him a somewhat unlikely candidate to lead a tribute to Dizzy Gillespie, his high placement within New York’s monument to straight-a-head bebop mitigates that. The 40-year-old bassist last year recorded and released Dizzy Con Clave, an octet treatment of nine Gillespie staples that turns up the amperage on Afro-Cuban rhythms, voicings and other styles. (Lest we forget, Gillespie was one of the founding fathers of Afro-Cuban jazz in the late 1940s.) What, you thought nobody could squeeze more latin flavor into “Manteca”? Henriquez and his ensemble, now expanded to a nonet, welcome the opportunity to prove you wrong. You’d be smart, jazz fan or jazz-curious reader, to welcome it too. The Carlos Henriquez Nonet performs at 8 p.m. at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, 600 I Street NW. $35.

Sunday, June 2
Lena Seikaly is one of our favorite jazz vocalists. She engages in flawless precision and subtle manipulation of time—she lands her phrasing just behind the beat on ballads, just ahead of it on uptempo tunes, dead center of the beat on mid tempo tunes (though quite ready to throw change-ups into any of the above, as the song demands it). These are the underpinnings of the most obvious trait in her singing, that full-bodied, slightly husky voice that sounds out of place with her relative youth. Seikaly is a regular at many different venues in town, but one of the best and most consistent is at The Alex: a small bar and restaurant in the basement of the Graham Georgetown Hotel. Each Sunday night, pianist Chris Grasso (D.C.’s go-to piano accompanist for singers) hosts a Jazz Night series that features a different vocalist. It’s Seikaly’s turn, giving her the good fortune of Grasso’s and bassist Michael Bowie’s backup. (The good fortune is mutual.) They begin at 6 p.m. at The Alex, 1075 Thomas Jefferson Street NW. Free (but with a $20 minimum).

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a freelance writer, editor, and jazz journalist who has been covering the Washington, D.C. jazz scene since 2009. He spends most days either hunkered down in the clubs or in his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.

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