Arts Desk

Jazz Setlist, Dec. 30-Jan. 5: 2010 Finale/2011 Premiere

Let's be frank, kids. New Year's Eve is tomorrow; if you're still looking for something to do that night, you're in trouble. Everything that's not sold out is ridiculously high-priced (which is why it's not sold out). If you want jazz, stay home and listen to WAMU's special "Hot Jazz Saturday Night" special.

Meantime...

Thursday, Dec. 30
Monty AlexanderHere's this week's profound opening thought: Monty Alexander is seriously cool. Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, the 66-year-old pianist first encountered jazz as a teenager at a Nat "King" Cole concert, and in the 50-plus years since has gained a deep mastery of the jazz standards, pop songs, and gospel hymns that his idol loved. But he's also got an unparalleled knowledge of his home island's musical traditions, and can tell you in compelling detail about the development of calypso, ska, and reggae, down to where those interesting names came from. In fact, Alexander also leads a reggae band, and has wedded it with his jazz trio in an ensemble called Harlem-Kingston Express. Even if he's not playing reggae in specific, though, Alexander's jazz piano (and melodica) can't help but be infected with the rhythms in which he grew up, which makes it a sumptuous delight. Monty Alexander performs at 8 and 10 p.m. at Blues Alley, 1073 Wisconsin Ave. NW. $35.

Friday, Dec. 31
Larry WillisLarry Willis was still a freshman at the Manhattan School of Music when he began playing with Jackie McLean in 1965–it was McLean's avant-garde period. But Willis happily wandered between the "in" and "out" spectra, adding bebop, swing, Latin, African, and fusion to his palette. Willis worked for seven years in the '70s as a member of Blood, Sweat, and Tears, the wretched jazz-rock band that was nonetheless a career-maker for its musicians. Willis has never been a superstar again; he's just made much, much better music. Much of it's his own–he composes and arranges strong, challenging tunes, and possesses a stunning facility for strings. Strings, you won't hear on New Year's night; you'll just have to make do with a brilliant, dizzyingly diverse musician who plays his ass off for you in every conceivable milieu. Willis performs with his quartet at 9 and 11 p.m. at Twins Jazz, 1344 U St. NW. $20.

Wednesday, Jan. 5
Darcy James ArgueThe buzz around Darcy James Argue's Secret Society began long before most of the world had heard them; the 18-piece "steampunk big band" was still working itself out in the New York clubs when they began to be discussed as the wave of the future. Then their 2009 album Infernal Machines hit the shelves, and it turned out that the hype had been, if anything, an understatement. Argue's music is ambitious, experimental, and complex, but in a sense far closer to indie rock with its immediacy and wide-ranging palette. He also blends elements of European folk, contemporary classical, and film-noir soundtracks, yet still works in classic swing, all of them placed in extraordinary frameworks of his own creation. It's damned exciting stuff, and still with the unique flair of the underground–enough to get any music observer fired up. Secret Society performs at 8:30 p.m. at Subterranean-A, 1432 R St. NW. $17.50.

Larry Willis photo: Eldon Morgan

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