Thursday, May 10, 2007

Joe Sample and Randy Crawford

Keyboardist Joe Sample is the essence of cool, but sharing the stage with singer Randy Crawford can bring out the Pentecostal preacher in him. At the Birchmere on Tuesday night, Sample excitedly declared Crawford one of the "greatest blues singers that's ever been," and there was no question he meant every word.

Crawford laughed off the praise, but her performances throughout the evening, whether inspired by a blues lyric or not, were consistently sultry and soulful. They seemed effortless, too, with Crawford casually breathing new life into songs as familiar and faded as "Everybody's Talkin' " and "But Beautiful." Longtime fans who wanted to hear Crawford and Sample revisit their mid-'70s hits, recorded when Sample was a member of the Crusaders, didn't go home disappointed. "Street Life" and "One Day I'll Fly Away" made the cut, and both were enhanced by lean yet lively acoustic trio arrangements. But many of the concert highlights found Crawford and Sample covering hits associated with other artists, including Nina Simone and Nat King Cole.

"Gee, Baby Ain't I Good to You," which Cole recorded in the swing era, surfaced during the opening set by Sample's trio, featuring his son, Nick, on bass and the renowned session player Steve Gadd on drums. Sample was in a reflective mood during the trio's performance, recalling his boyhood in Texas and Louisiana and the alluring sounds of blues, gospel, zydeco and jazz in the air. As the travelogue unfolded, the key elements of Sample's keyboard style fell into place.

-- Mike Joyce

International Sejong Soloists

"Last Round," the driving string nonet by Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov that opened the Sejong Soloists' concert Tuesday evening, could have easily come off as just a basic introduction, paving the way for the bigger works on the program. The New York-based chamber ensemble, filled with top-notch young performers, was at the Kennedy Center to close out the Fortas Chamber Music Series season. The players played the 1996 piece with a bravado and technique that made it more entree than appetizer.

In the way that the music of Bruckner conjures the sound of a grand organ, Golijov's piece strikes up the sonority of the bandoneon, an accordionlike instrument central to tango. Based on dance rhythms that build to an almost maniacal intensity, the opening movement uses the compression of the instrument, while the second movement is its matching, languorous release. Sejong attacked that opening with abandon -- surging lines from two high violins slashing across more dense textures. Gentle sequences and yearning tunes made up the remainder of the piece.

The boldness in attack, strength of accent and tightness in ensemble turned out to be welcome fixtures of the group's playing throughout. The Adagio from the Notturno in F, Perger 106 of Michael Haydn (Franz Joseph's younger brother), rarely touched pianissimo, but the group lovingly traced the flowing lines and plush accompaniment. A smart arrangement of Ravel's Quartet in F kept all of the original's elegance, though the added volume took away some of the deep mystery from the gorgeous third movement.

The group's principal cellist, Ole Akahoshi, made the most of the solos in Tchaikovsky's "Variations on a Rococo Theme," Op. 33. A warm tone and generally precise intonation marked his fine playing. Akahoshi and the other players are still growing musicians. But the way that the phrases developed and moved left little doubt that more interpretive profundity is on the way.

-- Daniel Ginsberg

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