Arts Desk tends to avoid concert reviews. Most concerts are one-shot deals, and there’s little use in recommending or not recommending something that’s already happened. But at times there are exceptions, such as when a talented young jazz musician performs for the first time as a leader—-as did Sarah Hughes on Wednesday night at Utopia Bar & Grill. The alto saxophonist helmed a quintet (Brad Linde on second alto, Brian Settles on tenor sax, Andrew Cox on bass, and Web Grant on drums) in a program of the early music of Ornette Coleman.

Hughes, who turned 23 last month, is not a newcomer to the D.C. jazz scene. Raised in the Annapolis suburbs, she was a member of the Jazz and Jazz Repertory Ensembles at the University of Maryland, from which she graduated in 2008 with a degree in music education, and now teaches elementary school band in the Prince George’s County system (in addition to private woodwind lessons around the area). She’s also a busy freelancer and a regular member of the Brad Linde Ensemble. It’s only in leadership that Hughes lacks experience, which was driven home in that Linde—who is also Hughes’ boyfriend—emceed the first set at U-Topia. “This is the Sarah Hughes Quintet, but she’s still a little mic-shy,” he explained.
Hughes’ voice was only heard when she counted off the songs, which were well-chosen: primarily, the most tuneful and recognizable from Coleman’s tooth-cutting albums Something Else!!!! and The Shape of Jazz to Come (all transcribed and arranged by Hughes). The ensemble—-who had not rehearsed, but had learned the songs separately—-was a bit more constrained than Coleman’s were; as they got started, Settles asked about a song’s key, a question the free-jazz icon would abhor. Instead they exploited the songs’ bountiful melodies and investment in the blues.

They opened, in fact, with the 12-bar “Turnaround,” on which Hughes showed a surprising blues facility in her light, floating alto sound, with its space and carefully plotted constructions. Linde, meanwhile, had a harder tone on the alto (he usually plays baritone sax) and worked much more with patterns and riffs, incorporating quotes from the songs on “Jayne” and “The Blessing.” Settles went for a busier sound, built as much on muscle as melody, particularly on Coleman’s boppish “Chronology.” Their solo work, though engaging, hewed close to convention; however, they paid their free-jazz dues with deposits of exciting, noisy counterpoint in “Chronology,” “Peace,” and “Jayne”—-a nice touch, and a bold one for a first gig.

But there were less assured moments. The band understandably slowed down “The Sphinx,” one of Coleman’s most difficult melodies, but the pace was ultimately rather plodding. Also, Cox (the house bassist at U-Topia) didn’t have a particularly creative night; save for his bowed work on “Peace,” each of his solos had the same running eighth-note lines without only the barest cohesion. This writer also wanted to hear more flute, which Hughes played for the themes on “Peace” but abandoned for the solos. (In fairness, I only stayed for the first of two sets.)

None of these shortcomings, however, is uncommon or indeed unexpected in a debut, particularly an unrehearsed one. Hughes is a consistently solid player, and a steadily improving one, with some intriguing ideas for arrangement and interplay. Watching her develop as a D.C. bandleader will be fun.