Elijah Jamal Balbed’s sophomore release, Lessons From The Streets, is telling of how influential his music has already been on the Washington, DC jazz scene. The album’s liner notes make no mistake about it: “Balbed has become a guiding force on the Washington, D.C. jazz scene not by pushing some big new concept, but because he swims so strongly in its central currents.” In 2010, the Washington City Paper (a weekly similar to Madison’s Isthmus) named Balbed the city’s best new musician; in 2013, they honored him as the city’s best tenor saxophonist. The 25-year-old artist has been the artist in residence at DC’s legendary Bohemian Caverns and the venerable Strathmore Center in Maryland. The likes of Pharaoh Sanders and McCoy Tyner have shared the stage with EJB; he also performs with the institutional Chuck Brown Band, and shared the stage numerous times with the Godfather of Go-Go himself before his passing in 2012.
Washington, D.C., with its long-standing jazz tradition, loves Elijah Jamal Balbed. The first tune on this album, “Butch Warren,” tells listeners that EJB loves the city back. A burning hardbop tune, Balbed plays praise to one of jazz’s best artists. Warren, a DC native and one of Balbed’s mentors, recorded on hundreds of records during hardbop’s golden age (most notably on Herbie Hancock’s debut Takin’ Off), and was a fixture at DC’s Columbia Station jazz club in his later years. Respect for the heritage of jazz is at the center of this album.
For as much praise as Balbed receives for playing deep in the veins of jazz tradition, he lets his modern sensibilities show on this disc: “Firm Roots” shows rhythmic complexity throughout the form, and “What Matters Most (In Life)” presents a straighter, more laid- back groove. All songs are original, except for his covers of the standards “Infant Eyes” (Wayne Shorter/arr. Balbed) and “On Green Dolphin Street” (Bronislaw Kaper/arr. Balbed). “Sonny Suspended” also pays tribute to the great Sonny Rollins.
This is an album that allows Elijah Jamal Balbed’s strengths to shine: a strong, clean, sound that is unparalleled by most artists of his age, and an unwavering impetus to show listeners that jazz is a living, relevant, and colorful art form. But more importantly, it is telling of EJB’s security and versatility as a lifetime jazz musician, even if we still have much more left to hear: whether he stays in Washington or decides to go elsewhere, he is here to stay.
All tracks feature Elijah Jamal Balbed on tenor and soprano saxophones. Tracks 1-4 feature special guest Paul Bollenback (guitar) with Mark Meadows (piano), Romeir Mendez (bass), CV Dashiell III (drums). Tracks 5-8 feature Warren Wolf (vibraphone) and Alex Norris (trumpet) with Samir Moulay (guitar), Alex Brown (piano), Kris Funn (bass), and Corey Fonville (drums).