Of urban jazz and stringy lords

David Houston

David Houston

Photo By Allyson Seconds

It’s Friday night, and there are some fine sounds emanating from J. Lee’s Euro-Asia Bistro at 2516 J Street. Not just the slurpy sounds of ultra-hip sushi aficionados munching nigiri and norimaki, but something just as hip and laid-back. A deejay is spinning records and digital rhythm tracks in the corner while a saxophonist and bassist join in.

This is part of Urban Jazz Session, usually a five-piece group, truncated down to three for an evening of dinner music. The performance, particularly the work of DJ Anand, is perfect for the restaurant: a smooth, unobtrusive sound that, while certainly laid-back, veers sharply away from smooth jazz. The patrons of J. Lee’s might want it a bit slow and quiet (after all, they are here to eat, talk and drink), but they are also a crowd priding themselves on their hip, urban sensibilities. Urban Jazz Session is hip, urban music: California-style trip-hop jazz with a nice edgy quality that keeps it from being too sedated. It would be well worth checking out the whole band during its longstanding Wednesday-night shows at the Fox & Goose pub.

Meanwhile, just a scant block away, David Houston played his last regularly scheduled date at True Love Coffeehouse (the venue is closing, due to loss of lease, with a 24-hour live-music marathon August 13-14). For his final True Love show, a core rhythm section of fantastic session bassist Erik Kleven and the Miles’ drummer Garin Casaleggio was augmented by Popgun’s Mark Harrod on harmony vocals. Casaleggio seemed in particularly fine form during the evening, playing with a half-smile on his face through most of the set and clearly reveling in playing again with Houston, whom he backed up for a number of years before forming the Miles with bassist Shawn Hale and former Jackpot member David Brockman. (After the set, Casaleggio said with glee, “I think that was the best I’ve ever played”; indeed it was quite a performance.)

The real icing—both in terms of sound and because it was unusual in a coffeehouse setting—was provided by cellist Krystyna Ogella and violist Christina Maradik. Both Ogella and Maradik are classically trained instrumentalists, and they sight-read their parts from sheet music provided by Houston. (Maradik also can be heard playing on Anton Barbeau’s recent album, Guladong.) Ogella and Maradik mostly formed lush chords and backing ambience to the songs.

The effect of the extra strings and the relatively subdued, professional band was that Houston’s dark songs were provided with a focused sense of late-1960s/early-1970s songwriter production value that was heavily reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s 1969 release Songs From a Room. It should be noted, though, that while the comparisons to Cohen are almost becoming a cliché, Houston’s voice is (at least to this listener) significantly more compelling than Cohen’s. Although Cohen’s shorter vocal range and near-monotone delivery sometimes confine the emotional quality of his songwriting, Houston’s voice sounds as if he has poured his heart into a delicate china teacup, a teacup with a barely perceptible crack from lip to base. The effect, particularly on such numbers as “She Counts Stars,” is heartbreakingly beautiful.