Arts Desk

Jazz Setlist, September 18-26: Thelonious Monk Competition

Two of the city's biggest annual jazz events, in the same week? Yup. And that's not all.

Thursday, Sept. 20
One of the best one-night showcases of jazz in the country is a staple in Washington—oh, and it's free. I speak, of course, of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Jazz Issue Forum and Concert, part of the CBC's annual legislative conference. For 42 years the concert has showcased the finest jazz talent around, from multiple generations and multiple aspects of the tradition, and this year's is as good as any they've ever offered. On the bill are the nonpareil saxophonist Antonio Hart and his quintet, which will feature the great tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath as a special guest. (Heath is also being presented with the CBC's Jazz Legacy Award by Michigan Rep. John Conyers, Congress' foremost advocate for jazz.) The headliner is Terri Lyne Carrington, a phenomenon on the drum kit and a bandleader whose command only gets surer with every new project. This particular project is a special one, which she calls Money Jungle in tribute to and reimagining of the great Duke Ellington-Charles Mingus-Max Roach collaboration of 50 years ago. Carrington's version features pianist Gerald Clayton, saxophonist Tia Fuller, bassist James Genus, and vocalist Lizz Wright. 7:15 p.m. at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center's Ballroom A, 801 Mount Vernon Place NW. Free.

Friday, Sept. 21
Sachal VasandaniIf jazz is "the sound of surprise," as the great critic Whitney Balliett put it, Sachal Vasandani might be synonymous with jazz, at least as far as vocals go. He's a crooner, and there are certain parts of that archetype that Vasandani fits: the silky-smooth delivery, the relaxed but impeccable swing. But there's a fine line between archetype and cliché, and if Vasandani almost conforms to the former, he is never the latter. Your stock crooner, for one, doesn't have the thick coating of soul that this singer stealthily adds to his songs. Nor is Vasandani's repertoire clichéd: Who was the last lounge singer you heard singing Thelonious Monk tunes? Best of all, Vasandani avoids the syrup: Instead of loading his music down with lush orchestrations, he scales back his accompaniment to the bare bones. It's a measure of confidence that his voice stands on its own, and it's also a magnificent way of sticking out from the pack. Which, of course, Vasandani does anyway. 8:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. at Bohemian Caverns, 2001 11th St. NW. $22.

Saturday, Sept. 22-Sunday, Sept. 23
Thelonious MonkThis year’s Thelonious Monk Competition is a little different from the others. It’s still the most prestigious of its kind, the launching pad for many careers, and the focus of the jazz world’s attention over its September weekend. But this year the competition focuses on the drums—an instrument it hasn’t spotlighted for 20 years (since 1992, when D.C.'s own Harold Summey was the victor)—which means that Carl Allen, the competition’s house drummer who’s usually the man contestants have to keep up with, is a judge instead. The finalists won’t be supported; they’re doing the supporting. It’s a new dynamic that will be as unpredictable to watch as it will be fun. The Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition takes place in two parts: Saturday's semifinal—which this writer will live tweet (@themikewest)—will be held at noon at the Natural History Museum's Baird Auditorium, 10th Street and Constitution Avenue (Free). Sunday's final will be held at 7:30 p.m. at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, 2700 F Street NW. $50-$75.

Wednesday, Sept. 26
Steve ColemanSometimes, some disgruntled jazz aficionado will grumble that there hasn't been a true beacon of jazz, one who heralded a change of direction and gathered a massive following like the children of Hamlin, since John Coltrane. This writer's answer is always, "Hey! What about Steve Coleman?" Not quite the same, certainly—nobody's building churches to Coleman—but his genius and his massive influence are undeniable. Chicago native Coleman was one of the founders in the early 1980s of M-BASE, a musical concept that's terribly hard to explain; suffice to say it involves layers of contrasting rhythm, and pieces that are simultaneously thoroughly composed and thoroughly improvised. It's complex shit, the stuff of algorithms and musicology dissertations, that also happens to be compelling, mesmerizing, and unfalteringly spiritual. The effect is astonishing: You find yourself intoxicated by the multi-groove, hypnotized by the urgency and beauty of the melody, even as you find you don't really know for sure what you're hearing. Steve Coleman and 5 Elements perform at 8 p.m. at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE. $30. (With a pre-show interview between Coleman and this very writer.)

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