Brian Settles gives excellent, thoughtful performance at Bohemian Caverns

July 6

He is likely the best tenor saxophonist in the District, but Brian Settles doesn’t go overboard in making his case. If anything, Settles and his trio went in the opposite direction at Bohemian Caverns on Saturday night. They played a set of meditative, often cerebral tunes that never went for the adrenaline rush when they could make thoughtful statements instead.

Yusef Lateef’s “Quarantine,” for one, kept a basic tonal center — A-flat minor — and its pacing was deliberate enough that its movements away from that center weren’t obvious. Indeed, Settles was under control even when his bandmates doubled the tempo — but he wasn’t afraid to color outside the lines when it helped him to make his statement. If the sax man wasn’t evidence enough, the rhythm section should have been: Tarus Mateen was unerring with his nonstop bass walk, and if drummer Jeremy Carlstedt’s accompanying ride was full of variation, it never abandoned the forceful 4/4 pulse.

The following number, “Understanding,” was a hard-blown piece that clung even more to the intellectual side of jazz. The players were surely helped along by the mallets Carlstedt played across his tom-toms, but Settles and Mateen communicated supreme control with their widely spaced phrases and relaxed rhythms. Each member of the trio paced himself so carefully, yet so sure-footedly, that the tune seemed an ironic commentary on the frenetic pace of life in 2014 — but for the hard work emblazoned across Settles’s visage as he blew his low-toned, long-note solo. It wasn’t hyperactive music, but it wasn’t for the lazy listener either.

Mateen, who (as always) played electric bass, made it sound like an acoustic in its resonance and pitch bends; his playing showed the kind of attention to detail that makes all the difference in such an intellectual performance. Likewise, Carlstedt gave significant care to the sound of each part in his four-piece drum kit, even when it sounded utterly frenetic as on “River” and Slide Hampton’s “A Day in Vienna.” Every “i” was dotted, every “t” crossed; such was the precision that Settles communicated even in his most impassioned, frenzied lines. The furrow in his brow and pronounced dimples in his cheeks gave away the labor in his playing at every step, but an audience member who relied on sound over image surely took away the easy confidence in Settles’s writing and playing above all else.

West is a freelance writer.

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