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PERFORMING ARTS

Monday, October 31, 2005

Django Reinhardt Festival

The Django Reinhardt Festival at the Kennedy Center's KC Jazz Club on Friday night couldn't have made Franco-American relations seem more harmonious.

Though the transatlantic array of talent was weighted in favor of French musicians, the arrangements neatly accommodated all six players. The center of focus was French guitar virtuoso Dorado Schmitt. Beginning with a Reinhardt favorite, the pop standard "I'll See You in My Dreams," Schmitt displayed complete mastery of Gypsy jazz guitar technique while frequently alluding to the trademark elements of Reinhardt's style: darting arpeggios, fretboard-sweeping slides, half- and whole-note bends, sparkling harmonics, vocal-like phrasing. Schmitt's son Samson mostly played rhythm guitar in swing time, more often than not with propulsive power. When he played lead, however, he dashed off single note lines with clarity and verve. Tel pere, tel fils .

The performance, hosted and nimbly underscored by bassist Brian Torff, also pointed to Reinhardt's ties to Stephane Grappelli -- whenever violinist Pierre Blanchard's deft touch and singing tone was showcased -- and referenced swing-era recordings made on this side of the Atlantic. Indeed, saxophonist Joel Frahm never sounded more soulful than when performing "Body and Soul," conjuring a resonating warmth that recalled Coleman Hawkins's definitive version of the tune.

Heightening the Gallic swing mood on "Sweet Sue" and other tunes was accordionist Ludovic Beier, who also contributed the evening's loveliest original composition, "Souvenir of Autumn." Rendered as a duet, the reflective ballad was subtly enhanced by Samson Schmitt's altered guitar tuning.

-- Mike Joyce

Duke Ellington Celebration

"From Harlem to Hollywood," the Duke Ellington celebration presented at the National Museum of American History's Carmichael Auditorium on Saturday night, began on a familiar note, with seven musicians drawn from the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra inviting listeners to "Take the 'A' Train." From that point on, however, there was no telling what the next stop would be.

Affably hosted by Loren Schoenberg, pianist, reedman, educator and irrepressible raconteur, the program wouldn't have disappointed anyone who wished to reminisce in tempo. After all, there was no shortage of Ellington hits, including largely improvised versions of "Satin Doll," "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" and "Caravan." But what made the concert special were the wonderful obscurities that kept surfacing. Each displayed another facet of Ellington's genius as the septet charted his course from dance halls to film work. Schoenberg noted that some of the pieces the Ellington band rarely performed would have provided other orchestras with long-lasting meal tickets. His point was colorfully underscored by such sparkling gems as "Savoy Strut" and "Reflections in D."

Some of the orchestral pieces were imaginatively rearranged for four horns by Chris Madsen -- no small task given the harmonic complexity of the original scores. Whether playing alone or together, trumpeter John Eckert, trombonist Willie Applewhite, alto saxophonist/clarinetist Marty Nau and baritone saxophonist Scott Silbert consistently evoked the maestro's extraordinary tonal palette. Schoenberg (on piano, almost exclusively), bassist James King and drummer Kenneth Kimery contributed additional idiomatic touches and a vibrant swing pulse.

-- Mike Joyce

Master Chorale Of Washington

Two 20th-century religious works that reach back to Gregorian chant for inspiration made up the Master Chorale of Washington's program under Music Director Donald McCullough on Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Beyond that, though, Dave Brubeck's "Pange Lingua Variations" and Maurice Durufle's "Requiem" have precious little in common.

Brubeck, of course, is most famous as a jazz pianist, and the "Pange Lingua Variations" juxtapose unadorned sections of the plainchant with variations that employ a jazz quartet along with the chorus and orchestra.

However, Brubeck's orchestral writing produces some muddy, awkward timbres, perhaps making him reluctant to let the jazz quartet interact with the orchestra much; brilliant solos by pianist Jeffrey Chappell and bassist Pepe Gonzalez never jelled with the rest of the work. In addition, although the verses of the plainchant describe the life of Christ, Brubeck's music made little reference to the story, missing out on some drama. The Master Chorale deserves credit for programming the unusual work, though, and sang it with delicacy, fervor and an unfailingly lovely tone.

These virtues were shown to better advantage in the Durufle, which places its obvious chant influences in aching chromatic harmonies and restrained but vivid orchestration. Here McCullough led the chorale and its orchestra in a flowing yet intensely devotional reading. Occasional eruptions like the riveting incantation of death and destruction in the "Libera Me" set in sharp relief the much more frequent and always gorgeous prayers for eternal rest, like mezzo Shelley Waite's rapt "Pie Jesu" and a final "In Paradisum" whose ethereal harmonies were truly transporting.

-- Andrew Lindemann Malone

The Kissers and The Fleshtones

A potent twin-bill at Iota on Friday night delivered on its promise of high-energy exuberance. For openers, the Kissers, a young five-piece Irish band from, of all places, Madison, Wis., put across a set of dynamic Celtic-influenced rock. Led by singer-bassist Ken Fitzsimmons, whose lyrical earnestness (in keeping with Irish tradition he writes serious songs about love and war) couldn't dampen the fun of the music, the Kissers displayed ample improvement over their debut visit last year despite being down two members.

Propelled by Pete Colclasure's accordion and keyboard, Joe Bernstein's martial-paced drumming, Waylan Nate Palan's electric guitar and the show-in-itself sight and sound of the impossibly cute Kari Bethke's fiddling, the Kissers give music fans a reason to watch the schedule for the next appearance.

The house was suitably warmed up for the Fleshtones, New York's standard-bearer of garage rock, a raw combination of soul, rhythm and blues and hard rock. The cult band's first song, "Hard Lovin' Man," was played with all the passion of the encore, "American Beat," more than an hour later. In between there was mucho mirth to be had.

Twenty minutes into the show guitarist Keith Streng and bassist Ken Fox were playing on top of the bar, with singer Peter Zaremba dancing the twist and drummer Bill Milhizer keeping a furious beat on stage. The energy level rose even higher with the addition of guest guitarist Paul "Peppermint" Johnson from the Master Plan (a side project with Streng and Milhizer and the Dictators' Andy Shernoff); Johnson ripped through two songs with impressive skill and undeniable glee, creating multi-layered sonic mayhem with high-kicking Streng as his henchman.

"He's family," Zaremba said when Johnson was all-too-soon finished. The declaration had the ring of handing the baton to the next generation, and for garage rock fans, that was good news indeed.

-- Buzz McClain

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