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At Rhizome, French horn player Abe Mamet anchors a wonderful jazz quartet

French horn player Abe Mamet, center, performed at Rhizome on Oct. 8 with drummer Joe Palmer, left, bassist Steve Arnold and Sarah Hughes, not pictured. (Jamie Sandel)
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Julius Watkins, jazz’s first major French horn player, would have been 100 years old this weekend. It naturally fell to D.C.’s only major jazz French horn player — 27-year-old Abe Mamet — to mark the occasion. Friday night saw Mamet perform as part of a wonderful quartet on the lawn at Rhizome, where the group honored Watkins and gave Mamet some props of his own.

Watkins may have established a lineage, but French hornists are still rare in jazz. That’s a shame, as the quartet demonstrated. Playing under a canopy tent (and sometimes diminished by passing Metro trains and helicopters), Mamet’s horn blended beautifully with Sarah Hughes’s alto saxophone on tunes like Thelonious Monk’s “Think of One” (the original 1953 recording of which was Watkins’s breakthrough) and Watkins’s gorgeous “Life of Love.” More interesting, though, was when they dueled instead of blending. On Watkins’s swinger “Blue Modes,” they traded bantering fours, then went into playful counterpoint. Hughes emitted cool tones on alto, while Mamet went aggressive, as if to push through the French horn’s natural mellow sound. They met in the middle.

Between songs, and after intermission, Mamet filled the audience in on Watkins and his importance, with notes about his history, composing style and legacy as a teacher (with Mamet noting that he was part of “the third generation” of jazz French horn). Maybe one could say that it was that legacy that was the focus of the show’s second half. But more to the point, it was Mamet’s own music.

This was a different world. Where Watkins’s works were based in bebop and the short-lived jazz-meets-classical “Third Stream” movement, Mamet’s pieces were post — well, all of that. His “MallRats” centered on the street beat of the brass band renaissance, with the hornist, bassist Steve Arnold and drummer Joe Palmer all doubling down on that beat. (Hughes sat out.) Mamet played unaccompanied on “Dawn,” a slow piece with masterful use of space and pacing, before Hughes returned for “Joe Bonner,” a funky tribute to the late pianist who was one of Mamet’s mentors. For their encore, the band returned to Watkins’s work: “The Oblong,” which in their rendering had a vaguely New Orleans feel (although Mamet played a more modern swing — hard — over that feel).

Although the evening’s French horn focus was obvious, it wouldn’t be fair to say Mamet was the whole show. Arnold was a prolific soloist, making the bass sing on “Life of Love.” Palmer didn’t solo, but he was surely the concert’s groovemaster, locking in with Arnold almost telepathically on “Reasons in Tonality” and “Joe Bonner.” Meanwhile, in improvisation after beautifully constructed improvisation, Hughes proved time and again that she is a civic treasure. Is there a bridge around here somewhere that we can name after her?

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