Taking the A-List of Ellington Favorites

Christian McBride, a star of the Jazz Masters Concert.
Christian McBride, a star of the Jazz Masters Concert. (
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By Mike Joyce
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, October 6, 2008

This year's NEA Jazz Masters Concert, the cornerstone event in the fourth annual Duke Ellington Jazz Festival, wasn't as ambitious, compelling or memorable as some previous editions. But Saturday night's performance at the Lincoln Theatre was certainly entertaining, awash in thoroughly Ellingtonian sounds, from the opening rendition of "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," delightfully arranged for three upright basses, to the closing, hit-driven performance by the jazz legend's namesake orchestra.

Setting the mood was the D.C. Bass Choir, with special guest Christian McBride. Formed in honor of the late bassist Keter Betts, the trio -- bassists Herman Burney Jr., Michael Bowie and James King -- combined low-end dexterity with high-spirited antics. In addition to saluting Ellington, with and without the fluid help of bass virtuoso McBride, the trio performed Betts's "The Walking Bass," a jive tale enlivened by King's comical delivery and timing.

Joining drummer Lenny Robinson, tenor saxophonist Paul Carr and pianist Chris Grasso, bassist Bowie then helped devise a series of flattering accompaniments for vocalist Sharon Clark. A Washington native with a powerful yet supple contralto, Clark moved with soulful, swinging assurance through her set, often evoking the artistry of Sarah Vaughan along the way. Clark proved wonderfully nimble when the tempo quickened or when some scatting was called for, but for sheer enjoyment, nothing eclipsed her dreamy rendering of "You Go to My Head."

Under the direction of trumpeter Barrie Lee Hall Jr., the Duke Ellington Orchestra delighted the crowd with a nonstop hit parade that included performances of "Satin Doll," "Lush Life," "C Jam Blues" and "Take the 'A' Train." Several soloists stood out, none more so than alto saxophonist Charlie Young, who helped animate a rollicking reprise of the comparatively obscure gem "Jubilee Stomp." Washington jazz elders Buck Hill and George Botts, on tenor saxophones, briefly bolstered the ensemble's reed section, while fellow guest artist Paquito D'Rivera was in typically marvelous form on clarinet, adding to the rich harmonies and serpentine lyricism that distinguished the orchestra's performance of "The Mooche."

Unfortunately, the band didn't offer a program specifically tailored for the evening. Apparently that won't be the case next year, when the orchestra will help the festival celebrate the sounds and culture of New Orleans.

During the evening Buck Hill and jazz impresario George T. Wein were named recipients of the festival's Lifetime Achievement Award. Also honored was Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, who received the John Conyers Jr. Jazz Advocacy Award.

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