News | Elijah Jamal Balbed this Tuesday finishes run as Bohemian Caverns’ artist in residence for June

As Bohemian Caverns' artist in residence this month, Elijah Jamal Balbed leads a band there on Tuesday. Carlyle V. Smith/CapitalBop

by Giovanni Russonello
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The jury’s no longer out on D.C.’s jazz renaissance: We all agree it’s happening. And there’s no longer much discussion about where the epicenter of that resurgence is located, either – Bohemian Caverns.

Those two facts are not unrelated. Omrao Brown, the club’s co-owner and manager, has made Bohemian the cradle of the most innovative jazz in the city – at once welcoming the District’s best homegrown talent, up-and-coming national acts and worldwide legends. In so doing, he’s helped catalyze the reemergence of a progressive musical community.

So it fell perfectly in line with the club’s raison d’être when Brown launched an “Artist in Residence” program earlier this year. “The idea was to provide a regular run for a band, allowing them to work on their book,” Brown told me via email, so that a group could develop “a specific set of tunes for a recording. Not quite a paid rehearsal, but definitely a working weekly gig.”

This sort of breeding ground for creative development, in which talented musicians can find their footing, “is an integral part of a healthy music scene,” Brown said. “What happens if we don’t allow the legends of tomorrow to develop?” 

In this photo, Balbed performs at Subterranean A on June 11. Carlyle V. Smith/CapitalBop

On Tuesday, 21-year-old saxophone sensation Elijah Jamal Balbed completes his run as June’s artist in residence with a performance alongside some of the District’s top veteran musicians: Tim Whalen on piano, Tarus Mateen on bass and Nasar Abadey on drums. Not to mention the special guests. Balbed is scheduled to bring a host of collaborators onstage: saxophonist Fred Foss, trumpeter Donvonte McCoy, steel pan drummer Victor Provost and vocalist Integriti Reeves.

Balbed – whose hard-swingin’ style recalls mid-1950s Sonny Rollins, but with an added sense of urgency – is the caves’ third artist in residence, after vocalists Heidi Martin in March and April and Akua Allrich in May. The young tenor has never entered the studio as a leader, but he is planning to do so by the end of the summer.

“I’m trying to go for a thing where it’s not what I play that touches people, but the way it’s played and the connection that people make to it,” he said.

In that way, he’s partially indebted to the great saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. Balbed, a student of Jazz Studies at Howard University, developed a strong admiration for Sanders when the legend performed with the Howard big band earlier this year. On Tuesday, Balbed expects to play the Sanders composition “Thmebi.”

“I played with Pharaoh earlier this year, and he had quite an impact on me. His presence was just incredible. From the second he blew that first note, you could feel his sax throughout your whole body,” Balbed recalled. “That’s definitely what I’m going for.”

Tuesday’s show, the third and last of Balbed’s residency, doubles as a fundraiser for his younger sister, Yaya. She has endured a grueling back surgery, but through the ordeal discovered her own love for making music as a singer. The money raised will help pay for her medical bills and vocal training.

Next week, another tenor saxophonist starts out as July’s artist in residence: Brian Settles. Where Balbed is dedicated to a traditional, swingin’ bebop feel, Settles would just as soon leave that behind for freer territory. He is as dedicated to exploring tone and texture as to crafting linear statements; Settles’ group, Central Union, just released an excellent album of experimental jazz (more to come on that at CapitalBop shortly).

Elijah Jamal Balbed performs at Bohemian Caverns on Tuesday at 8 and 10 p.m., alongside pianist Tim Whalen, bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasar Abadey. Tickets are $7 in advance or $10 at the door. More information is available here.

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