Monday, October 15, 2007

Ravi and Anoushka Shankar

It would be hard to overstate the influence of Ravi Shankar on music in the late 20th century. The sitar virtuoso brought the classical music of India to Western audiences, becoming, in George Harrison's famous phrase, "the godfather of world music." But clearly he's not quite done. Still touring at 87, Shankar came to the Kennedy Center on Saturday afternoon and displayed much of the insight and profound musicianship that have made him a legend.

Accompanied by his 26-year-old daughter, Anoushka, and a small ensemble, Shankar performed two rarely heard "afternoon" ragas -- "Bhimpalasi" and "Pancham Se Gara" -- playing on a small, amplified sitar. It was an astonishing performance for a man his age, with moments of great beauty, and his focus never flagged. But he's undeniably frail, and it showed; the fingers no longer move with the graceful fluidity of his youth, and his playing felt strained and effortful, with only traces of the explosive vitality he once brought to the sitar.

But as Shankar nears the end of his career, his youngest daughter, Anoushka, is just beginning hers. One of the leaders of the emerging "second generation" of Indian musicians, she's been pushing out the boundaries of Indian music, integrating it with electronica and pop. But she showed herself on Saturday to be a master of the classical sitar as well, taking a deferential approach to her father but outplaying him at every turn. Marrying a sinuous, electrifying technique with a profound sense of conviction, it was clear she is her father's daughter in every way; it would have been gratifying if he'd let her play more.

Tanmoy Bose provided able, low-key accompaniment on tabla with Ravichandra Kulur on the south Indian drum called the kanjira, and Kenji Ota and Dave Cipriani on the tanpura.

-- Stephen Brookes


"Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Verve recording artist Ledisi," said the Birchmere announcer Friday night. The resulting applause was as much for the jazz label as for Ledisi herself -- Verve deserves credit for having the good sense to sign the seasoned Bay Area singer, who released her label debut, "Lost & Found," in August.

"I'm finally in the mainstream!" Ledisi remarked. And at little cost, apparently: "Lost & Found" material she performed, such as the gospel-rooted "Today" and the exultant "Joy," proved just as luscious as the work on her 2001 self-release, "Soulsinger."

Before singing "Alright," the serene first single from the new album, Ledisi confessed that Verve became nervous when the song didn't immediately fly up the charts. She said that fan support, particularly from the D.C. area, eventually made it a success. Ledisi even released a go-go mix of the single, with D. Floyd from Familiar Faces, to express her gratitude.

With increased renown, Ledisi is attracting new fans, and she easily spotted the rookies in attendance: They were the ones who sang along to her 2000 radio single "Take Time," her cover of "Yesterday" (which, shockingly, wasn't groan-inducing) and not much else. "Look at the new people," she said. "That is so funny!"

Ledisi gushed over followers who have been with her since the '90s, but was generous to the newbies. She taught them the words to "Get Outta My Kitchen" and told them she hoped they were having a good time -- although she added, "If you're not, there's nothing I can do about that."

-- Sarah Godfrey

Imani Winds

Yes, the Imani Winds are great to listen to, with their infectious energy and their willingness to take artistic risks. And yes, each of the five woodwind musicians can charm an audience with introductions to the music that are not only witty and cogent but that also speak from the heart, to the heart. But perhaps the most compelling aspect of their performance at the Library of Congress on Friday was their choice of music.

The Winds' program drew on the best from sources that have taken jazz, the blues, funk, folk, and classical polyphony and structures seriously. There were no concessions to "easy listening" or cheap effects. This was music that demanded and rewarded attention -- music that was important.

The concert opened and closed with pieces by the late Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, whose exuberant tangos have caught fire with audiences around the world. An arrangement of his "Escualo" got a delightful reading, and his tightly strung "Libertango" ended the evening triumphantly.

In between were "Shadow" by the Thai composer Narong Prangcharoen, full of microtonal ornamentation and chattering textures; Paquito D'Rivera's "Kites Over Havana," by turns playful and reflective; the Washington premiere of Wayne Shorter's "Terra Incognita" (commissioned for the Imani ensemble), whose improvisations sounded well rehearsed; and four excellent movements from "Suite: Portraits of Josephine Baker," by Imani flutist Valerie Coleman.

The performances opted for color and intensity over neatness. This was a good choice.

-- Joan Reinthaler

Cypress String Quartet

When a concert is interesting, sometimes it's the performance that grabs your attention. But sometimes it's the music that is revealed by the performance.

The Cypress String Quartet, in residence at San Jose State University, opened the 30th season of concerts at Dumbarton Church in Georgetown on Saturday with two 20th-century American pieces, Griffes's Two Sketches for String Quartet and Barber's String Quartet, that don't get performed all that often.

Textures were beautifully balanced (particularly evident in the glowing Barber second-movement Molto Adagio, which is high on many people's all-time-favorites list); sonorities were clean and rich. The ensemble, while not rigid, was comfortable.

But it was Dvorak's "American" String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 96, an old repertoire regular, that made the evening special. Tempos were chosen to bring out a more personal reading than most -- a slow tempo for the first movement's second theme that provided some leisurely space for reflection, and a hair-raising vivace for the finale.

There were opportunities for gorgeous cello and viola solos and, throughout, the music emerged as a conversation rather than a convention. Dvorak has rarely sounded so good.

-- Joan Reinthaler


It seems fitting that Los Angeles noise-rock trio Qui introduced itself Friday night at Iota as "Fugazi Osbourne." The former was a winking reference to Ian MacKaye's presence at the foot of the stage, and the latter was perhaps an allusion to new Qui member David Yow, who was well known for his stage antics in the Jesus Lizard.

(Yow's antics mostly included nudity and crowd-surfing, though; nothing as controversial as the doings of Ozzy O., the former Black Sabbath frontman.)

Yow's stage presence has mellowed over the years, but his voice hasn't lost its edge; his bellow on "Today, Gestation" and "Freeze" recalled the raucousness of his earlier band.

He did show remarkable versatility, though, with his melodic whisper on "A #1" joined by the surprisingly melodic harmonies of guitarist Matt Cronk. While Yow strutted and ranted throughout the 50-minute set, the band wasn't always just about him: The instrumental first half of "New Orleans" found Cronk and drummer Paul Christensen creating a bluesy sludge that wasn't wanting for vocals.

Mid-set, Yow climbed up on a platform and sat cross-legged to watch his band-mates play "Apartment."

The song was one of the heavier, denser numbers of the night, but Cronk's back-turned performance and Christensen's uncaptivating vocals showed by contrast how much more engaging the group is with the addition of such a dynamic frontman.

-- Catherine P. Lewis

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