Monday, November 13, 2006

Tribute to Keter Betts

Jazz standards, pop favorites, swing, blues and some Ellington, several old chums and lots of laughter -- everything about the Keter Betts tribute at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Friday night suggested the late bassist was in the house. And it wasn't just the performances that hit the right notes.

Jennifer Betts, the honoree's daughter, perfectly summed up her dad's genial spirit when she said that he was so nice he'd even talk to telemarketers.

In addition to family members, Keter Betts (who died last year) was represented by his upright bass, which stood onstage throughout the concert.

A fine trio led by pianist Junior Mance opened the evening by demonstrating why Betts would often refer to the keyboardist's "track shoes" -- shorthand for Mance's brand of headlong swing.

The veteran pianist, however, also conjured moments of sheer lyricism during a lovely solo interpretation of "The Single Petal of a Rose." Pianist Billy Taylor followed suit with his elegiac gem "In Loving Memory," then brightened the mood with an imaginatively re-harmonized version of "I'll Remember April."

As the tribute unfolded, the performances became more colorful and expansive.

Among the highlights: a small combo featuring tenor saxophonist Davey Yarborough offering up "Desafinado" as a sensuous reminder of Betts's groundbreaking bossa nova collaborations with Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd; singer Vanessa Rubin, who spoke of Betts's memorable work with Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington, casually refreshing several pop standards, including "The Man I Love"; and bassists James King and Michael Bowie teaming up for "The Walking Bass," a comic novelty and surefire finale.

Mike Joyce

New York Festival of Song

Twenty-five songs written by 16 composers between 1878 and 2001 do not add up to a unified recital focused on Italy -- especially not when nearly half of them are in English, French, Spanish or German.

So to enjoy the Vocal Arts Society's presentation of the New York Festival of Song on Saturday, you had to ignore the abrupt mood and musical shifts and just let the music wash over you -- as a near-capacity audience did at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater.

To one man, the hodgepodge did make perfect sense: Artistic Director Steven Blier, who discussed the works in copious program notes and verbal introductions that were sometimes longer than the songs they prefaced.

But the music outdid the explanations. Soprano Carolyn Betty, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and tenor Jeremy Little got both the notes and the emotions right as they skipped from Pizzetti to Respighi to Dello Joio to Castelnuovo-Tedesco.

Two Busoni songs were standouts -- Little in "Wer hat das erste Lied erdacht," which is filled with sweet Italianate sentiment, and Cooke in the intense and spooky "Zigeunerlied," to words by Goethe. Betty conquered four short Luigi Dallapiccola songs on poems by Antonio Machado, while Blier, as pianist, handled the 12-tone complexities well.

At the other musical extreme was Leoncavallo's "Neapolitan Serenade," a piece of fluff with trivial accompaniment that was sung as a trio and proved an absolute joy. Blier's tribute to Italian, half-Italian and Italian American composers sounded so good that its lack of cohesion turned out not to matter.

-- Mark J. Estren

The Funky Meters And Chuck Brown

Aconcert by the Funky Meters and Chuck Brown offers the possibility of being a history-come-alive, dance-till-you-drop affair. Alas, Friday night at Strathmore, these godfathers of syncopated beats achieved mixed results. While D.C.'s go-go patriarch, Mr. "Wind Me Up Chuck," was successful, the New Orleans openers were less so.

Playing to the diverse audience's tie-dye contingent, the Funky Meters' Art Neville and his gospel-rooted organ tones lost vibrancy on song after song, as the keyboardist and his colleagues repeated musical lines in a sprawling, overextended set that lost rhythm and melody without gaining any improvisational excitement, and turned the Meters' venerable funk catalogue into jam band cliches.

Brown's songs were also lengthy, but drummer JuJu House and conga player Maurice Hagans kept the sound rooted with their insistent go-go beat.

Brown didn't offer much in the way of new material, but was charming as he applied his raspy voice and jazzy guitar to "My Funny Valentine," "Hoochie Coochie Man" and his own "Go Go Swing."

Brown's brass section and his own distinctive call-and-response exchanges with the crowd kept the cuts lively. Mid-set he let keyboardist-vocalist Cherie Mitchell take the microphone on covers of current hits including Fergie's "London Bridge" and Mary J. Blige's "Enough Cryin'."

The seventy-something consummate entertainer finished the night with his 1970s hit "Bustin' Loose," then added a lighthearted rendition of his recent lottery commercial while the roadies cleared the stage.

-- Steve Kiviat

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