"Here's 60 of New York's finest," said conductor Jack Elliott as he introduced the New American Orchestra to a Washington audience for the first time at the Kennedy Center last night.
Composed of musicians who work primarily in television, film and recordings, and a number of notable jazz artists as well, the orchestra quickly demonstrated its special pops-concert appeal. The best performances included a lush orchestration of the film theme "Laura" and the Count Basie-inspired "Stay 'n' See," which featured jazz trumpeter Marvin Stamm.
Presumably, though, most of the audience came to hear the orchestra's guests: singer Diane Schuur, former astronaut Scott Carpenter and one of the few bona fide legends in pop music, Ray Charles. Schuur is an immensely talented singer who isn't shy about saluting some of her early influences. "Teach Me Tonight" was a sassy but loving tribute to Dinah Washington, and Schuur's heartfelt rendition of "Amazing Grace" deserved all the applause it generated.
The task of narrating "Mojave," an enjoyable if rather derivative paean to space exploration, naturally fell to Carpenter, who handled the assignment capably although his somber delivery was occasionally drowned out by the orchestra.
As for Ray Charles, well, there's no use applying words like "soulful" to his performance, since that would only be redundant. Despite the familiarity of favorites like "Georgia," "Can't Stop Lovin' You" and "What I'd Say," Charles' portion of the concert was an emotionally satisfying treat.