Monday, July 2, 2007


Music lovers who are given a chance to be part of a concert recording tend to behave like sports fans who get a shot at hamming it up for the JumboTron during a big game -- they turn into lunatics. Singer Maysa's show at the Birchmere on Friday night was recorded for a live album scheduled to be released in 2008 and, predictably, some people overdid the whooping and hollering.

While a handful of attendees made noise in hopes that their cries of "We love you!" and "Sing it!" might be immortalized on CD, true fans of the Baltimore-bred vocalist were more interested in listening than talking. Not only did Maysa (best known for her work with British contemporary jazz group Incognito) offer up her smooth voice, she also gave interesting background stories about each song she performed.

Maysa explained that "Out of the Blue," from her 2002 album of the same name, was written for her son, who was born prematurely while she was in Osaka, Japan, for a performance. She volunteered that 2000's "Got to Be Strong" was written in honor of Sade and that "Mr. So Damn Fine" is meant to dishonor a former boyfriend. She even confessed that she once recorded a Hot Pockets jingle and sang the ode to the self-contained microwaveable meal.

Maysa and her band ended the night with Incognito's "Deep Waters" and performed a cover of Earth, Wind & Fire's "Keep Your Head to the Sky" as an encore. And when Maysa and her backup singers duplicated the supersonic harmonies of the 1973 track, the audience fell silent for the first time all night.

-- Sarah Godfrey

Elisabeth von Magnus

Mezzo-soprano Elisabeth von Magnus was a very different singer in her Kurt Weill recital at the Austrian Embassy on Friday than she was in a Mozart program there a year ago. Retooling her shimmering, early-music sound for the grittier world of Weill's theater songs, she exploited the limits of her voice and technique, often to arresting effect.

She cooed and purred her way through some little-known tunes from the composer's brief sojourn in France, often launching a phrase on a mere wisp of breath. Weill's Broadway songs (including rarely heard gems from "Lost in the Stars") were delivered with more of a straight-from-the-hip swagger. But best of all were the Berlin theater songs, where fluid alternation of singing and speaking and free phrasing across bar-lines contributed to a matter-of-fact chill that brought out their trenchancy.

Not everything worked. Her English and French are murky at best. There were awkward attempts at marrying operatic and pop sounds, and some unsupported notes became hooty and ill-tuned. And all her busy costume and prop changes really need the ambiance of a theater or nightclub to fully succeed. But it's thrilling to hear this early-music veteran (supported by the robustly characterized pianism of Jacob Bogaart) reinvent herself as a cabaret performer -- and find a compelling emotional connection with Weill that didn't always come through in her Mozart.

-- Joe Banno

Turtle Island Quartet

The Turtle Island Quartet, now in its 21st year, has undergone a number of personnel changes, but it remains the marquee name among the few jazz string quartets active today. Its Friday night concert at Washington National Cathedral's Summer Music Festival showed the group is still evolving and developing.

Although the program ranged from jazz classics (Thelonious Monk's " 'Round Midnight," Dave Brubeck's "Blue Rondo a la Turk") to original works by the quartet members, the concert was largely devoted to the music of John Coltrane, with its centerpiece the four-part 1964 suite "A Love Supreme."

All four members possess precise classical technique and played from a score, but they flashed generally impressive jazz skills as well, taking improv solos and swinging together. Cellist Mark Summer was particularly arresting, with his highly sophisticated slap-bass techniques, having to do double duty as both bass and drum kit for the ensemble. It must be said that as remarkable a hybrid group as this is, it doesn't always come off well in comparison with either of the groups to which it explicitly traces its lineage. The intonation in octave and unison passages would not pass muster in a Haydn or Beethoven quartet, and the solos rarely if ever matched the freewheeling exuberance and rhythmic groove of their models.

The arrangements themselves were variable. The more lyrical pieces sometimes came off as pedestrian (other than Coltrane's lovely "Naima"), but the group was most enjoyable when it sounded least like a traditional string quartet.

-- Robert Battey

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