Photo: Merri Cyr
The Bohemian Caverns, at 11th and U Streets in Northwest Washington, DC, is the new incarnation of the classic underground jazz club where that famous Ramsey Lewis Trio album was recorded. It’s the very same place today, under new management and part of the thriving U Street corridor that has been reawakened in the last 15 years.
You head downstairs into a vintage jazz club—but with a cavern theme, fiberglass formed into cave walls that frame up a small stage. The club is about half full—not bad for a Sunday show. The trio tonight is not quite a jazz group, as the leader will soon joke, even though the bass player is a premiere jazz player on this instrument. But he’s also the musical (and married) partner to this great singer, Jen Chapin, daughter of the famous Harry Chapin, though Jen is far from a folk artist. Rather, she occupies a territory that’s closer to soul and jazz, except that her songs have a firm rooting in both the stories and the social causes (and social observations) that make folk music important.
After playing the opening tune from her latest album, Reckoning, Jen says, “We’re too folk for jazz and too jazz for folk”. But when you actually hear the group play, hear Jen sing, bending her notes, dig the airy and impressionistic and mysterious chords that underlie the verse to the next tune, “Insatiable”, you realize that this is just jazz that tells stories in more direct words. The simplicity, perhaps, doesn’t seem very “jazz” to jazz people. But they’re wrong.
The next tune, “Let It Show”, does start like a folk song. It is a simple strum but with a gorgeous harmonic shift on the chorus. Jamie Fox, who plays electric guitar in contrast to Jen’s acoustic, brings in a Bill Frisell-type harmonic sophistication that makes this tune into something more layered and interesting. The lyrics are about how to find a way to tell your kid that the world is better than it seems if you just let it be. And the song plays that out musically: simple but beautiful.
“Don’t Talk” is yet another song from Reckoning, and another that is about marriage. After the lyric “We won’t talk any more”, there’s a quick and earthy bass solo by Chapin’s husband, the astonishing Stephan Crump. Hilarious in its own way. It’s also notable here that the trio is recreating the arrangements from a record that was amply produced, which requires them to add some more texture with background vocals. Crump and Fox are up to the job. On the next song, “Feed Your Baby”, Crump handles a low harmony (of course - he’s a bass player) that really fills things out.
The band closes the first set and opens the second with some very hot songs. On “Let Me Just Be” Jen’s voice cracks and frays in a sexy way. Some people find her voice cutesy: rounded but young, little girl-ish. But it’s hardly that here. It’s a little nasty. As is Fox’s guitar solo, which uses just enough distortion and combines dirty chording with some crying high notes. “NYC” is a very funky tune that Chapin wrote in music school at Berkelee, pining for a “real city” like New York. It’s all Crump, man, laying down a killer funk bass line that isn’t simple at all but is, in fact, that perfect combination of syncopation and blues roots, surprises and a killer adherence to the joys of “the one”.
Rhythmically, this trio is also much different from any folk band you’ve ever heard. “Little Hours” (from her first recording that really got attention) lets the band push and pull each other in a cool way. If you want to know how this music is not just “pop”, not just a verse and chorus that could have been on the radio, here it is. The bass goes arco on the verse and the thing is just that much better. Similarly, “Passive People” is a rumba that hides its real agenda: to note that we put up with way too much just to stay comfortable. But, boy, it’s easy to miss the point if you just hear how fun and seductive this groove it.
By the end of the night, the Caverns are pretty empty, but it’s Sunday, to be fair, the very first night of a relatively long tour for this band. The songs from Reckoning sound astonishing—the record really was one of the best adult pop records of 2013—and don’t suffer from the lack of a more elaborate band because Fox and Crump are just that good. (Fox is worth a special note: the professor of the band with his Atticus Finch glasses and his easy-fitting jeans and his hollow-body Gibson never too loud for the small room.)
Toward the very end of the night, they call “Sail Into the Mystic”, the great Van Morrison song. Fox and Crump give it a little skip-hop feeling, but what it’s really about is when Jen sings “I want to rock your gypsy soul / Just like in the days of old” and give us that little voice crack that is her secret weapon, the little hole through which we see her vulnerability and fears. On the brink she’s strong again, just like the soul singer that, I suppose, she really is. Strong but telling you that she’s not strong, or—more often—telling you how strong she is even as she reveals the weaknesses we all see in ourselves.
It was an incredible night of music. The small band, the small club: a perfect fit. But this music deserves to be heard by so many other people. You can’t help wondering how great it would sound with, say, a seven-piece band at Wolf Trap or the 9:30 Club. But you walk up the stairs from the Bohemian Caverns satisfied that you heard every note deep inside.