Jazz Setlist, February 23-29: Piano/Bass/Drums
Thursday, Feb. 23
As beautiful as the Coltrane-derived tradition of "spiritual jazz" is—and as much as this writer loves and values it—it hasn't often had the transcendent, moving-to-a-higher-plane effect that its admirers often give it credit for. John Coltrane, Billy Harper, Pharoah Sanders all move me, inspire me, challenge me; they don't offer me spiritual enlightenment. Except, that is, for Kahil El'Zabar. The master Chicago percussionist taps something deep and profound and psychic with his arsenal of percussion — which includes traps, hand drums, bells (including an ankle brace full of them), and a wonderful kalimba. He also sings and vocalizes, the latter a series of grunts, groans, and moans that emanate from him like a man truly possessed, and moves his body like he's sacrificed control to someone or something more powerful. His Ethnic Heritage Ensemble (saxophonist Ernest Khabeer Dawkins and trumpeter Corey Wilkes, both members of the AACM like El'Zabar) surely feel it too: Their chemistry/sympathy with him on the bandstand is too pure and affecting. If there's truly a spiritual plane, El'Zabar and the EHE might be its genuine ambassadors. They perform in their annual Transparent Productions DC concert at 8 p.m. at Bohemian Caverns, 2001 11th St. NW. $15.
Friday, February 24
Originally a top-call bassist on the Los Angeles scene of the early and mid-'60s, Buster Williams arrived in New York City with timing both fortunate and unfortunate. It was 1969, as the fusion age was boiling over, and straightahead bop-based jazz was entering its most fallow period. Williams played both—still a good way to pay the bills, but a stumbling block to a high-profile career (made worse when fusion ran out of gas a few years later). Williams soldiered on, becoming one of the favorite sidemen and remaining so for decades. He's a master craftsman, a fine and nuanced rhythmic technician, but a name mostly known by diehards. He deserves much, much better, like leadership of a quartet that features some world-class musicians. Like Mulgrew Miller, probably the finest and most important pianist of his generation, or the acclaimed jazz-rock drummer Cindy Blackman, who impressed Carlos Santana so much that he married her, or Mark Gross, a similarly under-the-table veteran who's played alto saxophone with virtually all the most important bands in the business. Why, as luck would have it, Williams has just such a quartet! It's called Something More, and it performs at 8 and 10 p.m. at Blues Alley, 1073 Wisconsin Ave. NW. $25.
Saturday, Feb. 25
It pays to be in the piano chair in Terence Blanchard's bands. The aforementioned Mulgrew Miller worked with Blanchard in the '80s, as did Cyrus Chestnut. His current player, Fabian Almazan, is fast making a name for himself too. And Almazan's predecessor, Aaron Parks, is now on the ascent. He's a former child prodigy, now 28 years old, with a finely honed articulation on his instrument and a flair for both atmosphere and storytelling. Those virtues combined to breathtaking effect on his 2008 recording Invisible Cinema, an album that was intentionally (and successfully) cinematic in breadth and one of the most assured, imaginative debut recordings in the past decade. Saturday night marks another important debut for Parks, his first time as a bandleader at the Kennedy Center (where he previously was a fellow of the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead educational program). His previous visits there were with Blanchard, and Parks thence becomes yet another young pianist to make that mentorship count. Parks performs at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. in the KC Jazz Club, 2700 F St. NW. $26.