The dean of the D.C. jazz bass tradition has never been content to rest on those laurels. Michael Bowie is a fusioneer, searching for stylistic intersection points and the most effective means of mining them. At Blues Alley on Monday night, Bowie and his band Blast explored two such means: aggression and social-justice politics.
Those who think of Bowie as swinging bluesy bebop lines on an upright acoustic would have been in for a shock at this funky, noisy electric ensemble of two keyboardists (Noble Jolley and Charles Alston), guitar (Dave Manley) and drums (Stanley Banks), along with Bowie’s five-string electric bass. It was all about edgy, hard-hitting groove, and the improvisations tended to be collective ones.
Such was the case on the opening “Prelude to a Broken Love,” with the bassist taking lead vocal on a lyric about domestic violence, and on a later ska-infected version of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” In both cases the vocal and lyric got somewhat lost in the barrage of sound — though perhaps that was the point. Bowie is not a great singer; he’s a passable one (and his earnest belief in what he sings boosts him a bit), but in this performance it was just one more of the band’s sonic layers.
Blast’s brand of fusion isn’t new to anyone who has heard recent work by, for example, Robert Glasper or Derrick Hodge (or their new supergroup together, R+R=NOW). But on Alston’s “Free of Keys,” they revealed a harder approach to rhythm: confrontational, with Banks going into overdrive on the drums (with some digital assistance) and Bowie and Manley holding down blistering, disciplined funk while Jolley and Alston jammed. The noise was a feature, not a bug.
The theme for the night, however, was one of the less noisy pieces — a downtempo soulful number called “It Could Be Ours.” The title sounds like a conventional ballad, but the “it” of the song was actually a just, equitable world. “It could be ours — I want that,” Bowie intoned over the double keyboards and his own bass. “If you want a better world, raise your hand,” he exhorted the crowd. “Put your hands together if you agree that we really need to find a way out of this mess!”
It wasn’t all social justice and confrontation, though — it was party music. ‘We’re going to mix Prince and Eddie Harris,” Bowie announced at the start of the set’s longest tune — a straight-out jam in which he briefly quoted Prince’s “Housequake” and employed trademark licks and grooves from both Prince and the soul-jazz great Harris. (Bowie also threw in some James Brown, with his chants of “Prince!” and calls for “soul claps.”) By the time the piece ended, it had created something rarely seen at Blues Alley: a dance floor, with spectators working it at stage right. Let there be no doubt that this music was fun: When the groove finally settled into an end, Bowie waited for quiet, then shouted: “One! Two! Three! Nah, I’m just kidding.”