But of course, it’s music season. :) Yes, early.
Cheikh Ndoye & Friends, Blues Alley, Washington, DC
If you’ve not heard of this guy, I strongly recommend checking him out. Doubly so if you like Gerald Veasley’s brand of music: kicky, funky, with a strong bass lead. Unlike Gerald, however, Cheikh is less groove and more snap. His brand of music is a different deviation of bass-heavy jazz; a bit more serious, almost as though his bass, in and of itself, is a bit more thoughtful than its counterparts.
So this show, with Chieli Minucci, Lao Tizer, and Karen Briggs as special guests, was an impulse trip. I thought about it, then thought against it, and about two weeks prior to the show, I asked myself, “What do I have to lose? It’s DC, a new city, and someone new to see.”
Well, it’s not like my travel bug is that difficult to convince. But you already knew that.
The thing about Blues Alley – and my regulars will confirm this – is that it’s located, quite literally, in an alley off North Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown. In my meanderings around Georgetown, I had ended up walking past it twice, before I glanced down the alley next to the sushi place where I just had dinner. Yep, there it was, and immediately, I thought of the old speakeasies, and the way they were hiding in plain sight. One glance inside, and the comparison is all the more apropos: the entire club is exposed brickwork and mahogany. The house lights, even when on, are dimmed, and the atmosphere is a modern look at an old-school concept. For an old-school soul like myself, yep – that’s what home looks like.
Cheikh definitely impressed me from the get-go, and that is because having a show with the electric bass as a lead instrument, balance is key, and he more than had it. If you’ve heard Chieli Minucci on stage, then you know that when he starts up on the electric guitar, he has no trouble overpowering the backing musicians. Karen Briggs on the violin – same. Cheikh clearly had lead on the stage, even though Chieli did indeed let it rip on the electric. The bass was front and center, right on par with the guitar and violin; snappy, a little introspective, and definitely front-and-center.
The others were also showcased on that stage. Scheherazade by Karen Briggs, a lovely deviation on a classic, and Special EFX’s Daybreak, that same bass that had led the game just a few minutes ago would blend into the rhythm on both songs.
One thing to note: Daybreak was pleasantly different last night too, and that is thanks to Lao Tizer. It’s usually a vocal-led song, and I’ve heard it in that variation effectively ever since I had started attending Special EFX shows. But this time, it was piano-led where the vocals would ordinarily be, and I found myself feeling the same warm little tingle down my spine that I felt the very first time I heard this live. Lao gave this song a whole new flavor, and it’s a flavor I should very much like to sample again.
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, BB King’s
If you are among my fellow jazzers and you’re not familiar with the band offhand, I recommend that you look up Mr. Pinstripe Suit. You’ll recognize some of the riffs from the Olympics and Carly Patterson’s gold-winning floor routine. You’ll also recognize this band as one of the players of the 90s Swing Revival.
Or, if you’re like me, you’ll see it as a trip right back to the 1940s.
I will say this outright: before I fell ass-over-teakettle in love with contemporary jazz, I had a love of an entirely different music: big-band and swing. I was maybe 10 when I started listening to it, and it was also the time of the Swing Revival, and I caught a rendition of Glenn Miller’s In the Mood. Hooked? Oh, come on, like you have to ask.
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy was on that radar here and there, but with time, and with a love affair with contemporary jazz, swing receded to the back burner…right up until I saw the BB King’s schedule and saw that they were playing.
This was last week.
You know, BB King’s has a very under-utilized dance floor. It’s a dance floor that I usually see set with tables as part of its usual audience seating plan, but this time, in an anticipation of some people knowing the proper steps to the swing (who were, in fact, hotdoggin’ it on the floor later on), the floor was free.
Out comes Scotty Morris and the band, and I will say this without hesitation: that has to be one of the best horn sections I’ve ever heard. Trombone, two trumpets, a tenor sax and the very seldom heard bari sax – and you’ll find yourself saying only three words: let ‘er rip! But easily, the guys who stole the show were Dirk Shumaker on the upright double bass and backing vocals, who actually went on and spun that bass on its peg like no one’s watching, and Joshua Levy on the keys, who looks like and plays like a very young Dave Brubeck. Scotty may’ve brought Mr. Pinstripe Suit front and center, but between Dirk being Mr. Heatmiser and Andy Rowley on the bari sax, photographing this show fell by the wayside somewhere around Cab Calloway’s Reefer Man. That was somewhere in the first 25 minutes. The rest of the time…well, what else can you do when the music is just begging you to hit the dance floor?
My feet have stopped complaining at me since that show, by the by, but the day after was a lulu.
Life on the Road
Technically, I’m not on the road that much, if you consider the number of days out of the year that I actually pack up and get out of town to catch a show. The thing is, I’ve noticed lately that whenever I see something on the music radar that requires traveling, I immediately think of the tote bag in my closet, and how quickly I can assemble what I need to crash for two nights max. The rest is getting there, exploring, meeting up with people, and whatever else I need.
You’d think it’s ordinary, but not on short notice. I know a lot of people who would be thrown into a panic at the prospect of jumping and getting on a bus, train, or plane within any timeframe less than a month. Me…nope. In fact, the shorter the time, the more I like it.
I’ve been thinking, more and more, of why I keep doing it. What is it about even this moment, where I’m sitting in the back of a Bolt bus, on the free wi-fi network, nursing a soup that I grabbed right before I left Union Station, that holds the appeal? I’ve always known myself to chase adventure and chase jazz, and far as I can tell you, I do it out of love for both. At the same time, I’d love to take a couple of days and stay home and keep putting the apartment to rights.
And yet, if someone told me, “Great show at Warmdaddy’s; grab your camera!”, you and I both know that I will be on the next Philly-bound Bolt bus and booking a room at the cheapest hotel possible as I go.
Still, even in this frenetic chase of music, moments, and memories, there are certain things that give me cause to lean back and simply enjoy it. For instance, right now, the bus is about halfway to NY. The mushroom bisque from Au bon Pain is delicious. Free wi-fi. A fantastic musical high. Pause to reflect on the first two shows of the new year, and the first out-of-state trip of the year that, all in all, didn’t put a massive dent into my budget. And it’s a fabulous way to start off the year.
May the jazz season officially begin.