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Guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel at Blues Alley was Wednesday’s headliner, but for a variety of reasons I decided instead to visit jazz clubs for the festival’s unfortunately named “Jazz in the ‘Hoods” series. This proved challenging, as the schedule I’d been given was less than accurate. But I took what I could get.

8:15 pm – Bohemian Caverns, 11th and U St.
A quartet led by Antonio Hart, a Baltimore saxophonist who’s also in Soul Con Timba, held sway at the Caverns. It included D.C.’s own Jolley brothers, Nathan (drums) and Noble (piano), and bassist Corcoran Holt, who plays with Hart in Soul Con Timba.

They start with Cedar Walton‘s “Firm Roots.” Hart’s alto sort of combines the styles of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane—light like Trane, muscular like Bird—but with more of a rhythm-and-blues center than either. His work is speedy and spellbinding. And the rhythm section is a knockout: Noble burns through the tune with beguiling post-bop and Latin chords. Nathan is a violent, passionate drummer who loves the drama of the crash and splash cymbals. He’s one to watch. And Holt, whom I found inaudible on the Soul Con Timba album, defies me; his bass figures don’t just anchor—they explore the space in every measure. On the second tune, Bill Evans‘ “Know What I Mean,” a trumpeter joins the quartet onstage with a golden Afro-Cuban solo. A helluva band.

9:10 pm – Twins Jazz, 1344 U St. NW
I arrive mid-drum solo for altoist Louis Fifie and pianist Benito Gonzalez‘s quartet. The drummer is Harry Cole; not only is he imaginative in his Caribbean-infected solo, but when the ensemble starts up again he’s clearly got a sense of rhythm that dwarfs yours and mine. Coming off of the astounding Nathan Jolley, though, it’s hard to be dazzled.

The set is like a hurricane. Fifie has a huge sound, again channeling Coltrane, but Gonzalez, who won the 2005 “Great American Jazz Piano” Competition, is the star. He’s a thunderstorm of piano notes; strangely off-rhythm at points, he jumps miraculously back into the groove every time, leaving the (correct) impression that you’ve just witnessed something extraordinary. And boy, does he look happy to be playing.

10:05 pm – U-Topia, 1418 U St. NW
The Ed Hahn Trio is listed as the performer at U-Topia, but when I walk in it’s a sweet, mellow quartet led by bassist Andrew Cox and featuring Kirk Winters on guitar, Jim West on piano, and Dennis Hoffman on drums. They are playing a song I don’t recognize, but when it’s done they launch into a beautiful rendition of “Autumn Leaves.” The instrumentalists all evoke the human voice in their own way: Winters’ sound is lively and chatty in its rhythm; West’s piano is lyrical, like a seductive chanteuse; and Cox does a quick, nimble solo that moves like scat singing.

It’s the last song before their break. “Is anyone here a Bill Clinton fan?” asks Cox. “He did a book signing today across the street from my office. The book is called Giving. We have a tip jar, for you to give in the spirit of Bill Clinton. And I deserve a tip for going through that whole story.” Indeed.

10:45 pm – Columbia Station, 2325 18th St. NW
Butch Warren was the house bassist for Blue Note Records in the ’60s and leads a quintet at Columbia Station every Wednesday. They’re on a tear this evening, a classic bebop (no “hard,” “post,” or “neo”) session so authentic that only the contemporary stenciling on the walls and ceiling signify that it’s not 1946. Knud Jensen, a local mainstay, resembles Gerry Mulligan in his later years, but plays a tough, sinewy tenor that sounds more like early Sonny Rollins (though it’s really a sound all Jensen’s own). Trumpeter Olivier Brown runs a brilliant solo on “Donna Lee”—undiluted bebop acrobatics.

As for Warren, he’s achieved that “elder statesman” status that allows him to go in whatever direction he wants. The only solo I hear, on “Stella by Starlight,” is an ultra-low, unadorned four-to-the-bar walk—almost confrontational, as if he dares you to ask for anything fancier.

Many of these musicians are rather “unwittingly” playing the Festival—they play these gigs every week, and are not seeing any of the money that the festival generates or pays to its star attractions. They’re all expert musicians, though, and great fun to see—would that it didn’t take a yearly event to get them attention in this town.