Steaming at Blues Alley

‘Twas a wet and blustery night

With cold descending on the town,

But the smoke was pouring hot

From the best jazz club around.

It was Saturday night and Kenny Garrett’s sextet was playing at Blues Alley, the premier Washington jazz club in the heart of Georgetown. The club is really located in an alley, which adds somehow to its charm. Inside, it’s the real deal. Tightly packed tables seating 140, surrounding a compact stage that is crowded on a night like this because the sextet has a lot of instruments.

We booked late, a bit unsure about attending such an event indoors, but we had seen Garrett several times before and the attraction of live jazz again, just a few blocks from our apartment, was too much to resist. Very wisely, the club has a firm policy: proof of vaccination to enter and masks-on when not eating or drinking. Even Garrett wore a mask before starting to play. All the audience seats appeared to be occupied as a few late walk-ins arrived to take the few remaining.

The traditional tools of the jazz trade jammed the stage: piano (baby grand, I think), drum kit (everything you can imagine), full-size bass, many microphones and, in this case, a full set of bongos, sound devices whose names I can’t guess and, in the center, a small electronic keyboard. In the hands of musical masters, these instruments enable the creation of the magical place a jazz club can be when a master of the art accompanied by others of surpassing talent are at the top of their game.

The people attending this event were primed for some top-level stimulation and they got it. Garrett’s sextet included: Vernell Brown Jr.: piano; Corcoran Holt: bass; Ronald Bruner Jr.: drums; Rudy Bird: percussion, snare; and Melvis Santa: vocals and keyboard, among other things. Those folks can play. For me, the drummer stood out, driving the music forward with powerful strokes and extraordinary energy. Few people can play like that for so long. But in truth the whole ensemble was a unit in an exceptional display of jazz at its most powerful.

At the end, Garrett called on the audience, already fully tuned up by the propulsive sound, to rise up and “work it out” to the closing number … and they did. I have never seen anything quite like that after attending many jazz performances over the years. Dancing in the aisles, even where there were no aisles.

Garrett’s style may not be for everyone (the first number lasted probably 15 or 20 minutes) but the crowd Saturday night was totally into it, as were all audiences in prior shows we saw. Typically, his entire body rocks back and forth to repeated riffs of sound. Maybe it’s how he keeps time. Doesn’t matter. The man can blow. He never seems to tire. His saxophone dominates the music, but the other instruments have their time as well when the tunes go from post-modern bop to Latin, Cuban, Afro something something, who knows. It’s all great.

At the end, Garrett dismissed each performer by name. The crowd erupted in appreciation and one-by-one the musicians exited. Garrett departed next-to-last, leaving the drummer, playing, for him, sedately. Then, he stopped and just walked off. It was all over but the vibrations. The steam subsided … until the next set.

Tickets are still available for tonight’s shows at 8 and 10.

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