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Setlist normally tries to stick with one jazz event per evening. But most evenings aren’t New Year’s Eve, where we’ll all be out on the town and wondering what our options are. So, as a Washingtonian and a jazz nerd, it is my duty to tell you that the options are many.
Dec. 31 The District’s strongest NYE jazz tradition, and its Cadillac option, remains Ahmad Jamal. The Chicago-born pianist’s name is mostly known by its tie to Miles Davis—-the two never played together, but the trumpet legend was outspoken in his fascination with (and copying of) Jamal’s use of space in his solos. Long and unusually placed rests are still a distinction in Jamal’s work, but they shouldn’t overshadow his other extraordinary abilities: lyricism, strong rhythm, clever and catchy compositions, and a surprising ability to turn all of these into a furious, even confrontational performance. The combination, no doubt, has ensured his regular return to DC for weeklong year’s-end engagements at Blues Alley, where he plays every set to a capacity house. Tonight’s performance is a special one, featuring a dinner package and stellar locals Paul Bollenbach (guitar), Michael Bowie (bass), and Lenny Robinson (drums) accompanying Jamal. Expensive, but extraordinary. Sets at 6:30 and 10 p.m. at Blues Alley, 1073 Wisconsin Avenue NW. $110-$160. Another piano icon performs at Twins Jazz. Larry Willis first made his name on the challenging free-leaning music of Jackie McLean in the mid ’60s, but quickly extended his reach into bebop, swing, progressive, Latin, African, and even fusion and jazz-rock. Most famously, Willis worked for seven years as a member of Blood, Sweat, and Tears—-a band that was once extremely popular for some reason. Still, it does count as a major accomplishment for this man who’s as comfortable playing behind Dizzy Gillespie as David Clayton-Thomas, and equally adept at composing and arranging strong, challenging tunes. Willis plays with his quartet and saxophonist James Gates at 9 p.m. at Twins Jazz, 1344 U St. NW, with a package that includes dinner, champagne, and two sets of music. $75.
But if piano doesn’t do it for you, there’s the great guitarist John Pizzarelli at the Kennedy Center. The son of another great guitarist, Bucky Pizzarelli, John is every bit the sterling virtuoso and improvisational imagination that his father is—-but with added skills as both a singer and raconteur. Appropriate, then, that he should spend the evening in tribute to another singer and talker, Frank Sinatra, in a show called—-wait for it—-“Dear Mr. Sinatra.” Pizzarelli’s voice doesn’t really approximate the Chairman of the Board’s in any meaningful sense, save the sense of warmth that comes through in his croon. Yet he also plays his ass off on the six-string. Pizzarelli plays at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. in the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, 2700 F St. NW. $65-85.
Yes, yes, I know. Incredibly expensive, all of them. But there are great options on the local level as well—-the Young Lions play their regular set at Cafe Nema on U Street; violinist Susan Jones and her band play First Night festivities in Alexandria; the Potomac Jazz Project performs at the Kennedy Center’s Rooftop Terrace restaurant; and the weekly Thursday night jam session goes on as usual at HR-57.
Jan. 3, 2010 Alto saxophonist John Kocur isn’t called “The Smoker” for nothing. He’s simply one of the finest soloists the D.C. jazz scene has to offer—-and, it turns out, one of its most promising composers and bandleaders, too. Kocur’s quartet with pianist Amy Bormet, bassist Oliver Albertini, and drummer C.V. Dashiell III recorded an intriguing album in 2009, and promoted it with some spectacular gigs around town. And they’re starting the new year off strong, with a high-profile gig on the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. Kocur and the band will play some standards as well as their original material in a set that’s just in time to catch on your way to Sunday dinner. That’s at the Millennium Stage, 2700 F St. NW. Free.