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Friday, May 11 Iraq. Let’s start with that word. There is probably no place in America where it’s not an intensely politicized noun. And in D.C.? My God, forget it. And yet, paradoxically, that may make our fair city a crucial testing ground for the new music of Amir El-Saffar. The trumpeter was born in Chicago and grew up on jazz, but his father was Iraqi and Amir also mastered the Iraqi classical music tradition of maqam as a singer and player of the santoor (hammered dulcimer). Beginning with his 2008 record Two Rivers, he has been on a quest to reconcile the two musical traditions—-and he’s making real progress. The Two Rivers band (tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen, oud player Zafer Tawil, bousouki player Tareq Abboushi, bassist Carlo DeRosa, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey) is a major development in the progressive jazz universe, but it’s all too fitting that it should appear at D.C.’s Iraqi Cultural Center. That’s 7:30 p.m. at 1630 Connecticut Ave. NW. $80 (including a Middle Eastern buffet).
Saturday, May 12 A look at Saturday night’s offerings alone can tell you what a great time it is for jazz in D.C. Esperanza Spalding is at the Howard; Gretchen Parlato at the Birchmere; Jose James at the Atlas; and the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival’s closing night at the Kennedy Center. Setlist offers no endorsement among these incredibly worthy concerts. Before they start, however, you might indulge in a bit of a refresher on what made D.C. a jazz town in the first place. Andrew Hare, a drummer, blogger, and teacher at the Levine School, is offering a performance with his ensemble (pianist saxophonist Lyle Link, Bill Heid, and bassist Reagan Brough) that will re-examine U Street, the “Black Broadway,” in terms of its centrality to D.C. jazz and its impact on that world. Hare, a sharp drummer who is also a careful and thoughtful structuralist (indeed, he blogs as “The Melodic Drummer”), is an unsung dynamo in D.C.’s arsenal of drummers. He performs at 6:30 p.m. at THEARC, 1901 Mississippi Ave. SE. $5.
Sunday, May 13 This writer would be really surprised if there’s ever been a public steelpan-off in D.C. before. (That kind of stuff usually happens in Baltimore.) But we do have Victor Provost, the steel drummer whose virtuosity and invention have carved out for him a unique and wonderful niche in Washington jazz circles: He illuminates every gig he plays, whether his own or somebody else’s, and the other musicians in town know it: They all want him on their gigs, and he’s got a long line of people ready to be on his. But he doesn’t often get the opportunity for an old-fashioned, down-and-dirty, Dexter Gordon/Wardell Gray type of duel on his own instrument. Here comes Jonathan Scales, the North Carolinian steelpannist and fusioneer, to pick up the gauntlet. Their battle is the feature of the CapitalBop jazz loft for May, which also features a band led by alto saxophonist Sarah Hughes and the beginning of a farewell tour for Rodney Richardson, the stalwart D.C. guitarist who is headed for a new home in Chicago this summer. The Loft begins at 7 p.m. at The Dunes, 1402 Meridian Place NW. $10 suggested donation.