Afro Celt Sound System
Despite its initial impression, Afro Celt Sound System is not a nightmarish combination of "Riverdance," Deep Forest and Paul Simon's "Graceland." The eight-piece African-Irish collective proved it is more than a novelty act before a sparse but responsive crowd Wednesday at the 9:30 club.
For 90 minutes, the dance-club-ready Afro Celt Sound System mixed talking drums and tablas with uilleann pipes and tin whistles, building fiercely trancey grooves that traveled across the African continent and landed on the Irish isle. James McNally of the Pogues is the band's MVP, playing everything from keyboards to flutes to a bodhran drum. He was also responsible for setting the tone of Afro Celt's high-energy stage show and much of the band's corny play-acting; McNally would haltingly approach the percussionists and bob his head into their faces or play back-to-back, stadium-rock style, with the guitarist or the player of the kora (a large stringed instrument that sounds like a mixture of a harp and a lute).
The beautifully plaintive Gaelic-language ruminations of traditional Irish vocalist Iarla O'Lionaird also mixed surprisingly well with Afro Celt's happy-go-lucky world-beat electronica, making for a culture clash that was hard to resist.
Alexandra Mascolo-David is a splendid pianist--refined, searching and expressive, and her playing is loaded with insight and interpretive detail. Plus, for her recital Tuesday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, she arrived with little-known musical gems on her program.
The concert was tied to the Corcoran exhibit "At the Edge: A Portuguese Futurist--Amadeo de Souza Cardoso." Mascolo-David connected the painter with a composer by opening with the "Petite Suite" by Antonio Fragoso, who, like his countryman and contemporary Souza Cardoso, lived in Paris, dabbled in modernist-art trends, and died young. Frangoso's wasn't an original voice, but he was fluid in an impressionistic style of gently rolling waves and foggy atmospherics. The last movement from the "Petite Suite" is a dance in three, which Mascolo-David built to a powerful climax; it seemed a glimpse into a more concrete and emotionally stable world.
That three-beat-per-measure lilt was Mascolo-David's segue to a world unfamiliar to most listeners, two sets of highly original, idiosyncratic waltzes by Francisco Mignone, a wildly productive Brazilian composer who died in 1986. The 10 waltzes on her program had an Italianate smooth lyricism coupled with hints of a Latin pulse, an improvisatory feel and wide tolerances for rubato. They ranged in mood from jittery (No. 11) and soothingly soft-focus (No. 12) to assertively sexy (No. 14, almost a habanera) and ebullient (No. 19). Mascolo-David has recorded a CD of Mignone's complete waltzes, due for release later this year, that should prove revelatory.
Small hands didn't hamper her steamy and nuanced reading of Janacek's Piano Sonata "From the Street." And for music by Chopin--the Berceuse, Op. 57, and several waltzes and etudes--she drew parallels with both Fragoso and Mignone, and the latter didn't suffer in comparison.
Most jazz Luddites wouldn't have expected that one of the most engaging hard bop ensembles to emerge in the late '90s would be led by keyboardist Chick Corea. Thursday night at the Kennedy Center, Corea and his formidable sextet, Origin, challenged all notions that he had sold his soul to the Devil when he became one of electric-fusion's heavyweights.
The ensemble boasted a bold, collective energy that recalls Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers, especially in terms of assimilating various strong soloists into a singular vision. Saxophonists Steve Wilson and Tim Garland and trombonist Steve Davis created a jolting three-horn foil that owed a heavy debt to Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus. Corea's percussive piano jabs were given additional rhythmic fire from drummer Jeff Ballard and bassist Avishai Cohen. The tension between the crackling rhythm section and elegant horn foil promoted some delightful conversations that justly demonstrated the group's exemplary communal spirit.
On Richard Rodgers's "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," the ensemble transformed the haunting ballad into a musical roller coaster without destroying its inherent elegance. While Corea and Davis seduced the audience with swooning solos, Ballard's suspenseful rhythmic shifts, and the starting harmonies created by Wilson and Garland on clarinets. The playful cat and mouse exchanges among Corea, Ballard and Cohen were as thrilling as the rousing solos from each member.
Musically, Washington lives on the excellence of the diverse chamber music series around town, and the Freer Gallery of Art has one of the most consistently rewarding. It helps that its Meyer Auditorium is acoustically well suited for small groups, particularly string trios and quartets. Wednesday evening a string trio--violinist Lucy Stoltzman, violist Scott St. John and cellist Judith Serkin--opened a concert presented under the moniker the Guilford Ensemble, a group of six players who hold various professional day jobs and get together for chamber concerts.
The Guildford opened with Schubert's String Trio in B-flat. After the Schubert came Toru Takemitsu's "Distance" (1977) for oboe and an exotic instrument called a sho, what the program notes described as a type of Japanese mouth organ, normally containing 17 bamboo pipes. Each pipe contains a metal reed, tuned with a drop of wax. To eliminate dampness, which would keep the reed from speaking, it's traditional to warm the instrument over a small charcoal fire during the performance. After reading this tantalizing description, what a disappointment it was to hear, in its place, a common, dull-toned keyboard synthesizer. Oboist Rudolph Vrbsky and David Kane, on synthesizer, made the most of it, but since the electronic instrument emits such a deadened sound, it's impossible to imagine the magic a sho might have added to the piece.
And where the enigmatic "Distance" seemed to fit on the program after the soft-spoken Schubert, a Haydn piano trio (Hob. XV:23) followed the Takemitsu with a bit of discomfort to the senses. The wispy, impressionistic, lyrical but atonal sound world that Takemitsu created over eight minutes couldn't linger in our heads as we might have liked; it was abruptly shoved aside as soon as the trio's D minor key asserted itself. The trio (with sensitive pianist Cynthia Raim) was done with warm, straightforward playing, characterized by a comfortable, no-risks, no-mishaps approach. Ditto for the Piano Quartet in D, Op. 23, by Dvorak that followed intermission, even though the work has plenty of room in which the adventurous can roam.