March 18 Puzzlebox describes itself as a fusion of “traditional, third stream, progressive, and avant garde jazz.” All of which is true, but there’s a more direct touchstone for their sound: Charles Mingus, whose uneasy juxtaposition of the dark and the boisterous permeates the Philadelphia octet. Indeed, Keith DeStefano, the founder and leader of Puzzlebox, is like Mingus, a bassist and composer whose touch is as indebted to Jazz’s Angry Man as is his pen. His music is taut, edgy, and full of surprises, but surprisingly catchy and lyrical throughout. Puzzlebox performs at 9 and 11 p.m. at Twins Jazz, 1344 U St. NW. $12. March 20 On its face, the pairing of tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson with pianist Cedar Walton is a bit unusual. Walton, 76, plays with a heavy, steely touch; 45-year-old Jackson’s full-bodied sax sound grows gradually sweeter with age. Yet both men worked in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the ultimate finishing school in the bebop tradition, which means they learned the same lessons about the importance of melody, listening, and working together to establish a sound. Better yet, it means they both came of age—albeit 30 years apart—playing straightahead jazz with blues and gospel edges so hot you can practically smell the smoke. Even so, their stylistic differences are profound enough to make their chemistry on the bandstand unpredictable—in other words, to keep things interesting. Jackson and Walton perform at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. at Bohemian Caverns, 2001 11th St. NW. $30.
March 21 Drummer Alison Miller grew up in the D.C. area, graduating from Sherwood High School in Olney before becoming an extremely prolific and diverse freelancer in New York. She’s played pop music behind singers Brandi Carlile, Natalie Merchant, and Ani DiFranco, as well as jazz musicians from mainstream to avant-garde to psychedelic. As a leader, Miller hews close to the cutting edge, playing melodic jazz that veers into freeform and indie-rock aesthetics, plus a fair share of carefully messy glory—-as heard on her extraordinary new album BOOM TIC BOOM. The CD features perhaps the most exciting quartet of adventurers in contemporary jazz: violinist Jenny Scheinman, pianist Myra Melford (a standout on the disc), and bassist Todd Sickafoose, along with Miller herself. As luck would have it this same BOOM TIC BOOM quartet performs at 8 p.m. at Bossa, 2463 18th St. NW. $5.
March 24 Things are going great for alto saxophonist John “The Smoker” Kocur. Last season’s artist in residence at Strathmore, Kocur has this year been invited to participate in the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program at the Kennedy Center, where he’ll get to workshop his already formidable skill as a composer, bandleader, and performer. (Kocur is already one of the best soloists on the D.C. scene; hence his nickname.) It’s a busy time for him, then—-and probably never busier than on March 24. At 6 p.m. he performs on the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, part of the showcase that week for the Jazz Ahead Residency; Kocur will be performing in an as-yet-unannounced ensemble and will perform original material. Later in the evening, however, his regular quartet (pianist Amy K. Bormet, drummer Nathan Jolley—-both Jazz Ahead residents as well—-and bassist Oliver Albertini) perform two sets at 8 and 10 p.m. at Twins Jazz, 1344 U St. NW. $10.