In the '30s, Harlem's Savoy Ballroom was known as "the home of happy feet." Now that drummer Panama Francis and the Savoy Sultans are in town through Sunday, the same might be said of Charlie's Georgetown.
"One, uh two, uh you know what to do" is how Francis cued pianist Sammy Benskin to "Moten Swing" last night, and a similar sort of playful, toe-tapping informality marked much of the evening. While the Moten tune, a telling reminder of Count Basie's early days, featured Benskin's spare touch, a couple of Ellington numbers better revealed the ensemble's punch and polish, especially "Cottontail," on which the Sultans' three saxophonists jointly echoed Ben Webster's recorded solo.
Always at the helm, though, was Francis. Whether prodding the soloists through the riff-based "Long John Special" or challenging Lindy Hoppers with the aptly titled "Frenzy," part of the original Sultans' repertoire, Francis was responsible for the band's brash and irresistible momentum. When the rhythms were allowed to cool, tenor-saxophonist Coleman Hoppins stepped in with a lean and tender "Girl Talk."
Such aggressively swinging music demands a strong vocalist, and the Sultans have one in Julia Steele. Her expansive delivery enlivened several standards, including "Got the World on a String" and "Bill Bailey."