Monday, February 27, 2006

Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Ensemble

Several seldom-heard delights were among the pieces performed Saturday night by the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Ensemble during a tribute to the late jazz legend Benny Carter.

Some of the tunes, unearthed by saxophonist and ensemble director Charlie Young after examining Carter's scores in the Smithsonian archives, were so obscure they lacked titles. Instead, numbers had been assigned to them. Surely a ballad as dreamy as "51," with its swirling harmonies, deserves a better fate.

Young's research paid off handsomely in the concert at the National Museum of American History's Carmichael Auditorium. Besides being well suited for a sextet performance, the music colorfully displayed Carter's prodigious gifts. Mostly mid-career compositions -- Carter died in 2003, at age 95 -- the pieces included the signature tune "When Lights Are Low" (complete with the original and little-known bridge) and "Malibu," a noirish theme that brought to mind Carter's extensive film work.

Mood shifts were built into the program, triggered by tailored-for-Basie swing ("Easy Money"), a Carnavalesque romp ("Southside Samba"), a rollicking, piano-driven blues ("Boogie") and several lyrical ballads.

A Duke Ellington Orchestra alum and Howard University professor, Young projected a full, rounded, gliding tone on alto that evoked Carter's harmonic finesse. At one point, he used a soprano sax, which Carter rarely played, to illuminate the sinuous melodic charm that distinguished the ballad "Ennui."

Other performances boasted crisp ensemble work and were enhanced by the solo space allotted to trumpet and flugelhorn player Tom Williams, trombonist Bill Holmes, pianist Bob Butta, bassist James King and drummer Harold Summey.

-- Mike Joyce

Shirley Caesar

Shirley Caesar has devised a new way to deliver gospel. At the Hylton Memorial Chapel in Woodbridge on Saturday, the singer/pastor kicked verse (minus chapter), opening her performance with a quick rap.

"Stomp on the Devil, take you to another level," she rhymed, in the middle of the revivalist "I Know the Truth (Lies)." Not exactly Rakim-caliber wordsmithing, but with her impassioned delivery and a voice filled with gravel and grace, Caesar put more than a few secular rappers to shame. Not bad for the 67-year-old doyenne of traditional inspirational music.

Aside from that moment, Caesar's performance was more Sunday morning than Saturday night. The bulk was from 2005's "I Know the Truth," the 41st recording from the First Lady of Gospel, and the debut project of her own Shu-Bel Records. The multiple Grammy winner performed new material such as "Jailbird," a striking piece about salvation for the imprisoned, and the soothing "Touch, Heal and Deliver."

Caesar said the show, which also featured Kurt Carr and the Kurt Carr Singers, was not a show but a "service," and she illustrated that point by spending more time in the chapel's pews than on its stage. She briefly sat among the people during the jubilant "Armor of God," from 2000's "You Can Make It," and walked the aisles, passing her mike to attendees, for "Jesus, I Love Calling Your Name."

Once known for her boisterous dancing, Caesar said, "Time has slowed that down," but she still managed to jump around quite a bit with her four backup singers. And after stretching out a handful of songs into a two-hour appearance, she told the crowd, "If you think that this is something, wait till we come back."

-- Sarah Godfrey

Saluting Rahsaan Roland Kirk

The late jazz reedman and iconoclast Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who could play three horns at the same time, mastered the art of multitasking long before there was even a word for it. So when faced with the challenge of saluting Kirk in worthy fashion at the Kennedy Center's KC Jazz Club on Friday night, trombonist Steve Turre did the only sensible thing: He enlisted the help of two renowned saxophonists, Billy Harper and Vincent Herring.

The three musicians made for a formidable frontline, producing brash contrasts, sensuous harmonies and quick-witted responses in tandem with an exemplary rhythm section: pianist Ronnie Matthews, bassist Charnett Moffett and drummer Dion Parson.

Kirk's legacy has become synonymous with the title of his tune "Bright Moments," so it wasn't surprising to hear the ensemble thoroughly reinvigorate that anthem.

There were other bright moments galore, beginning with the apt kickoff "Three for the Festival," charged by Turre's stirring brass work, and "One for Kirk," a swinging blues salute composed by the trombonist. Boasting cadences a la Ellington and Strayhorn, "Steppin' Into Beauty" offered a lovely reminder of the more sublime aspects of Kirk's repertoire.

Herring played flute as well as fluid alto and soprano sax, while Harper combined a brawny, serrated tone with harmonic prowess and surging drive. When Turre played conch shells for melodic and percussive effect, it was hard to imagine Kirk not being delighted by the results. The salute grew more expansive as the opening set unfolded, fueled by churning Latin jazz grooves and vibrant, blaring polyphony.

-- Mike Joyce

Meredith Monk Ensemble

Meredith Monk, that formidable doyenne of the avant-garde art music scene, brought her renowned vocal ensemble to the George Mason University Center for the Arts on Saturday night for "Impermanence," a beautiful and deeply personal new work on the themes of death, leave-taking and the fragility of human life.

At 63, Monk is an engaging composer and singer. The evening was replete with her trademark ululations and microtonal slides, those wonderful yips and yelps and her vocalized breaths, and gorgeously off-kilter harmonies. The voice may have aged a bit, and she was eclipsed as an innovator years ago by the likes of Diamanda Galas and Sainkho Namtchylak, but who cares? She's still a fine composer -- and always easy on the ears.

Maybe a little too easy. "Impermanence" is an extended meditation on loss, exploring the emotional terrain at the end of life. It's a rich field to mine, and Monk created a sensuous soundscape out of it (with accompanying dance and film). That said, there was little edge or drive to the piece and too much of the art school preciousness that still lingers in her work. You felt absorbed into a trancelike ritual that, while pleasant enough, didn't exactly leave impact craters on the heart.

That may have been partly due to the choreography, which can only be described with wincing and groans, and which undercut the many poignant moments in the music. But the ensemble members were all first-rate, with excellent performances from Katie Geissinger, Bohdan Hilash, Ching Gonzalez and others.

-- Stephen Brookes

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