Adjuah’s conception is both aggressive and atmospheric, which he accomplishes with layers of rhythm so dense that they become a sonic fog. When pianist Lawrence Fields and bassist Kris Funn join drummer Joe Dyson and percussionist Weedie Braimah, that fog also gains instant pathos. It happened on “I Own the Night,” where the music was already gorgeous and affecting before Adjuah and alto saxophonist Logan Richardson entered with the melody. (The first solo was Braimah’s, a furious workout on the West African djembe.) It intensified on the serene but regretful “Songs She Never Heard,” the leader forsaking his trumpet to beat a tambourine alongside Dyson and Braimah. Richardson was left alone on the front line with a peaceful, bittersweet solo that had a curious contrast in Adjuah’s visible joy to be in the rhythm section.
The rhythmic intensity took on other forms when MC Javier Starks took the stage to freestyle over “The Walk,” with a social-justice-themed, audience-participatory rap (Starks: “If you talk that talk you better be willing to —” Audience: “Walk that walk!”) over a moody, mellow groove in which Dyson introduced electronic drums along with his rain-like ride cymbal beat. It then morphed into incisive funk on “West of the West,” featuring Fields on Fender Rhodes electric piano (“We’re gonna let Lawrence loose on y’all because he’s lit up,” Adjuah announced before the tune) and a fine, nuanced bass solo from Funn. Moodiness returned for the closing “The Last Chieftain,” preceded by a 15-minute sermon from Adjuah about the lessons he’d learned about food insecurity and wage inequality: “We often forget how expensive it is to be poor,” he mused. The tune itself was full of long, effects-laden tones from both horns, an attribute that spilled over into their emotionally cathartic solos. (The trumpeter’s was pungent and howling; the saxophonist’s restrained but sad.)
In the midst of all that, however, came a dive into the tradition. Adjuah brought out three teenage musicians — tenor saxophonist Ephraim Dorsey and his alto saxophonist younger sister, Ebban, both of whom are familiar faces in D.C. and Baltimore jam sessions, and bassist Jeremiah Edwards — to play the Thelonious Monk standard “Blue Monk.” They were impressive, all three showing remarkable command of the blues idiom (especially the younger Dorsey, whose alto tone had a subtle roadhouse honk to it). “Thank you for keeping this tradition alive for another generation,” Adjuah told them — a reminder that this interlude wasn’t a change of subject, but a reminder of where the music had come from and where it was going.