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This Week’s Jazz in the District

by Michael J. West

Monday, May 13
Guitarist Joel Harrison grew up in the DMV in the 1960s and ‘70s, which made it all but inevitable that the self-described “redneck jazz” guitarist Danny Gatton and bluesman (and frequent Gatton collaborator) Roy Buchanan would be his heroes. The two guitarists shared among other things a love for the Fender Telecaster guitar—for you guitar geeks, that’s the same axe favored by the likes of Jeff Beck, Bruce Springsteen, and Bill Frisell. It’s the lattermost, along with Gatton and Buchanan of course, who most inspired the kind of windswept rootsiness that Harrison employs with his D.C. band The Spell Casters. Employing renowned D.C. guitarists Anthony Pirog and Dave Chappell along with Harrison himself, the band tries to recapture that folk-jazz feel that Gatton et al. once worked into a D.C. tradition. They often employ bassist John Previti and drummer Barry Hart, once Gatton’s rhythm section (the local guitar legend died in 1994)—just the way to give that sound the homecoming it deserves. Joel Harrison’s Spell Casters perform at 8 and 10 p.m. at Blues Alley, 1083 Wisconsin Avenue NW. $22.

Friday, May 17
I’m not sure D.C. drummer Quincy Phillips (whom I told you about last week in connection with Tedd Baker’s trios) gets an awful lot of comparisons specifically to Art Blakey. Not that jazz musicians particularly love getting saddled with comparisons to anyone, mind you—but there are a lot of similarities to speak of here; Phillips has the same facility with cross-rhythms as Blakey did, and if he doesn’t bring down terrific thunder as often as the drumming icon, when he does it’s with the same force and imagination. Phillips also shares Blakey’s passion for the raw roots of jazz, its soul-and-blues foundations. Hence the name of his own ensemble, Chicken Grease: “our mission is to put the whole bag of sugar back into the Kool-Aid and to put the ham-hocks back into the greens,” he says. “We need that flavor for balance.” It’s an interesting balance indeed considering the somewhat more refined palate on the menu at Sotto, where the band will be playing—but let there be no doubt that the meal will be substantial. (Phillips has not yet announced the lineup, but previous shows with Chicken Grease have included saxophonist Elijah Easton and a number of Baltimore’s finest, including trumpeter Brandon Woody, pianist Todd Simon, and bassist Mike Saunders. They perform at 7:30 p.m. at Sotto, 1610 Fourteenth Street NW (downstairs). $15 advance, $20 door.

Saturday, May 18
Speaking of raw, soulful jazz, there is one man living who does more than any other in the world to blur the distinctions between jazz and soul music. His name is Maceo Parker, and if you don’t know that name you surely know his sound. Those proto-funk sax solos on James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and “Cold Sweat?” That’s him. He’s also put his stamp on music by George Clinton/ Parliament/ Funkadelic and Prince, and in his own right he also sings with a croaky, Ray Charles-inspired voice. But what really matters here is the deep gutbucket he draws his playing from, with a pocket that’s equally deep. He is usually regarded as jazz-adjacent at best—he probably won’t be getting an NEA Jazz Masters fellowship, for example, though he should damn well be a contender—but make you no mistake. Maceo’s a grand master of soul, jazz, and everything in between. He performs at 7:30 p.m. at The Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Avenue in Alexandria. $45.

Sunday, May 19
One of D.C. jazz’s most interesting combos is also one that comprises D.C.’s busiest young musicians. Bassist Steve Arnold, the leader, is one of the city’s most ubiquitous players—a hell of an accomplishment in a bass town like this one. Alto saxophonist Sarah Hughes is similarly everywhere, a sonic investigator who can’t seem to get enough sleuthing under her belt. And if you’ve gone out to any jazz gigs in the District over the past year and a half or so, you’ve undoubtedly run into guitarist Nelson Dougherty, pianist Erol Danon, and (especially) drummer Kelton Norris, too. Each of these musicians is highly skilled and has great fire in them. Yet the quintet they make up, Sea Change, is not about fire. It’s a thoughtful, explorative sound that finds its best music in melody and reflective moods that defy the usual tropes of the noisy jazz avant-garde. It might indeed be a stretch to call Sea Change avant-garde … calling them progressive, though, hits the nail on the head. Sea Change performs at 8 and 10 p.m. at Twins Jazz, 1344 U Street NW. $10.

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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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