Tarus Mateen is best known as the bassist for Jason Moran’s Bandwagon — a jazz trio that regularly threatens to kick down the walls between genres. That’s clearly not an issue for D.C.-based Mateen as a leader. For him, those walls don’t exist in the first place, and on Tuesday night at Bohemian Caverns (where Mateen is artist-in-residence throughout July) he and his quartet danced without restraint over their ghosts.
Jazz was never a stranger to the party, of course. The first tune, “Sun Rays (Sisse 3000),” was built on a Latin-jazz foundation held sternly by pianist Federico Pena and less sternly by drummer Terence Arnett. On top of that, Mateen played a menacing soul line that clung to the Latin groove — the only real form the piece seemed to have — while tenor saxophonist Brian Settles took off on a free-form meditation of long, relaxed tones.
The band turned about with their rendition of “Body and Soul”; Settles stayed reflective in the theme, but followed the rest of the band into a hard funk arrangement. The workout started off firmly in the pocket (notably by Arnett, a startlingly attentive player who picked up on the band’s most subtle rhythmic nuances) but stretched into abstraction and then near chaos before Settles and Mateen led them back into the melody. It was all too much for one patron, who tried to head them off by yelling, “Come on, y’all! ‘Body and Soul!’ ”
Undeterred, Mateen introduced guest vocalist Brittany Tanner to sing his original “Want to Be.” The tune had an obvious R&B heritage, which Tanner tackled in a beautiful voice with the breathiness of Beyonce and the range of Whitney Houston. The accompaniment was so bare-bones — mostly bass and drums — that it could have been a demo recording, which served Tanner well. She had a rhythmic sense all her own, and it was her groove that Mateen and Arnett followed, not vice versa.
Sadly, Tanner stayed on for only the one song. But the band soldiered on to close with a crisp take on “Caravan” (first performed by Duke Ellington), returning to the Latin groove but wandering smartly in and out of strict construction. Pena’s solo ended “in,” and Settles’s immediately launched it back “out.” Mateen’s remark to the house afterward served as an epigram for the entire set: “I hope you’re feeling as free as I am.”
West is a freelance writer.