Tribute to Billy Strayhorn
It's virtually impossible to celebrate Duke Ellington's centennial without acknowledging the immeasurable contributions of pianist, composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn. Almost serving as an addendum to Ellington's yearlong birthday party, pianist Fred Hersch and pianist and vocalist Andy Bey paid a lovely tribute to Strayhorn Friday at the Smithsonian Institution's Baird Auditorium.
Hersch, one of his generation's most gifted interpreters of the American songbook, began with a wonderful suite of solo performances emphasizing Strayhorn's orchestral ambitions. The rapturous "Star-Crossed Lovers" and the dramatic "Isfahan" demonstrated an elegant improvisational knack as Hersch toyed with the compositions' structures. His use of space and tempo variations expanded Strayhorn's pieces into miniature symphonies.
Whereas Hersch focused on the sophistication of Strayhorn's work, Bey added swagger, his enchanting voice drawing out the sensuality and almost prophetic sadness of the lyrics.
His darkly muted baritone is one of the seven wonders of the music world simply because it's both distinctive and nearly impossible to imitate. On "Lush Life," Bey's vaporous voice wafted through the air like a ghost, giving the lyrics tremendous emotional potency. He demonstrated his own command at the piano with an intriguing opening on "Daydream" before singing the song with feverish intensity.
When Hersch and Bey collaborated, the evening gave way to some truly magical moments. They nearly lifted the subdued audience out of their seats with the heartfelt "Something to Live For."
When bassist Tom Baldwin and drummer Tony Martucci joined in on the rousing encore, "The Intimacy of the Blues," the concert crested to a spiritual high with Bey and Hersch giving their most unbridled performances of the evening.
If there were any concerns about alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett going soft after the release of his latest album, "Simply Said," he put them to rest Saturday at Blues Alley with a set of scorching bebop and thrusting funk.
"Simply Said" finds Garrett playing mostly urban contemporary jazz with only a few glimpses of the white-hot improvisations that made him one of today's most potent alto players.
But his performance of material from the album showed him to be an astute improviser who can transform innocuous songs into burning workouts. Before he ventured into the new material, Garrett opened with "Two Down and One Across," which captured the bristling splendor of John Coltrane's mid-'60s performances at New York's Village Vanguard.
In the amazing young drummer Marcus Baylor, Garrett has found a latter-day Elvin Jones with a magnificent array of flinty polyrhythms.
Pianist Nick Smith was also wonderful, conjuring the modal majesty and speedy single-note flurries of McCoy Tyner, while bassist Nat Reeves anchored all the glorious mayhem.
When the group focused on songs from "Simply Said," the energy level may have decreased but the excitement was still there. The infectious "Delta Bali Grooves" and "Sing a Song of Song" enchanted the packed house. And when Garrett engaged in some spoken word on the hip-hop-informed "Back Where You Started," he was mesmerizing.