City Paper is not for tourists
There’s more to Lessons from the Streets—D.C. tenor saxophonist Elijah Jamal Balbed’s radiant second album—than meets the eye. It’s no stretch to find a connection between the two original titles at its midpoint, “Lessons from the Streets” and “From the Streets to the Mansion,” a nearly 20-minute double nucleus that represents Balbed’s development as a jazz artist.
The title track has a hard-bop melody carefully segmented for the different instruments, but slips into bluesy (and, in the case of guitarist Samir Moulay, nasty) lines during the solos; the latter tune is glossier with a salsa finale—its improvisations comprise exchanges between Balbed and trumpeter Alex Norris, then Moulay and pianist Alex Brown, before vibraphonist Warren Wolf and drummer Corey Fonville put down majestic full-length solos.
But this centerpiece is just the core of a larger musical Künstlerroman. Balbed employs a different band—an expanded rhythm section that consists of pianist Mark Meadows, guitarist Paul Bollenback, bassist Romeir Mendez, and drummer C.V. Dashiell—on the album’s opening three tracks. The first, “Butch Warren,” is a tribute to the late D.C. bassist, one of Balbed’s mentors. It’s not a spotlight for Warren’s instrument, though Mendez takes one of the best, most bravura solos, but an echo of his solid sense of musical structure. The theme is a tight piece of bop, and Balbed and Bollenback deliver case studies in building an improvised melody. Cedar Walton’s “Firm Roots” is a staple of jazz jam sessions, and the performance feels like one. The arrangement has a neat bit of rubato as it rounds the corners, which becomes the defining shape of the improvisations, but Bollenback, Balbed, and Meadows leap that hurdle with little effort. In “What Matters Most (In Life),” both the composition and the soloists concentrate their energies on the mid-tempo funk groove.
If “Lessons from the Streets” combines those building blocks into one and “From the Streets to the Mansion” places them in a more sophisticated context, the last three tunes, which keep the centerpiece’s septet lineup, expand on that sophistication. Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes” begins in ballad formation, but Kris Funn begins a bass vamp that ups the ensemble’s energy and complexity—and gives Wolf a delightful spotlight. Balbed’s “Sonny Suspended” is a leapfrogging blues that wouldn’t be out of place in the first half of Lessons from the Streets, but for its considerable subtlety and nuance: The blues form is merely the A of an AABA composition, for one thing, and Funn contributes a solo that both incorporates and deconstructs bebop licks. Finally, the band injects the closing standard “On Green Dolphin Street” with a surprising dose of delicacy, including an ornate reading of the main theme by Norris, improvs by Wolf and Balbed that take pains with the tune’s internal structure, and a gorgeous concluding chord for the whole ensemble.
It all unfolds as a work in the “portrait of the artist as a young man” mold, and at 25, Balbed still qualifies for the distinction. Lessons from the Streets, though, suggests far greater maturity than most such portraits. If this is youth, imagine what age will bring.