Male jazz vocalists are such a rare breed lately that when a new one comes around, we sometimes get all excited simply because of his rarity. And while Washington-native Keith Ailer hardly displays a commanding stage presence, he has a smooth, authoritative voice that shows great promise.

His humble demeanor and peculiar humor made for some awkward moments between songs in his Tuesday night performance at Blues Alley. And the seasoned yet unrehearsed band saddled the velocity on rhythmically challenging songs such as Juan Tizol's "Caravan" and Lionel Hampton's "Midnight Sun." But when it came to the ballads, the quartet cushioned Ailer's whiskey-sour tenor with plush arrangements highlighted by absorbing solos from pianist Harry Appleman and alto saxophonist Fred Foss. Fortunately, the ensemble was savvy enough to keep its own asides to a minimum on "Autumn Leaves" and "But Not for Me," which afforded some of Ailer's more persuasive moments.

Between songs, Ailer openly pondered why they were called standards, and thus detracted from the emotional conviction of some of them. Luckily, he came equipped with some self-penned tunes, which aptly displayed his knack for writing superb lyrics and memorable melodies. Oddly enough, none of them came from his remarkable debut album, "Spaces and Places," but the socially conscious "Window Pane" and the bittersweet love ballad "Two Sixteen" could very well become standards themselves one day. Both songs gave indications that maybe Ailer is best when singing Ailer.--John Murph

'Prelude to a New Century'

Tuesday night's "Prelude to a New Century" concert in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall may have been partly a protest against the Chinese government's trampling of human rights. One of the composers on the program (which featured three world premieres by Chinese composers) used a pseudonym, and the program notes referred to "devilish spirits with evil intentions" and the "Angels' Sacrifice" in a "blood bath" that might be the Cultural Revolution or Tiananmen Square or both. But it would be hard to imagine a more polite or restrained protest.

The concert ended with music of sunny optimism and audience members by the dozen rushing to the stage to give flowers to the composers and performers. Like the composers, they seemed to have no doubt that, in the end, justice would prevail in China. And they may be right. The Chinese people have more than once shown their ability--quietly, patiently and not without suffering--to overcome tyrants.

The most intensely impassioned music came at the beginning with the violent, brass- and percussion-flavored opening of Ping Hu's "Dragon Soul": a cry of rage and a lamentation. But it ended optimistically with a "blessing" from "a heaven that favors full freedom."

"Requiem--Eulogy of the Immortals," by Xiao Hu and the pseudonymous N.T. Yates, was a one-movement cello concerto with a touching and brilliant solo by National Symphony Orchestra cellist Glenn Garlick. Like the traditional Requiem Mass, it was music of mourning (for the dead victims of injustice) and consolation in "the revival of pure beauty" at the end of this century.

"Prelude to a New Century," by "Yates" and Ping Hu, emphasized positive feelings through most of its four movements with a contrasting mournful flavor in the slow third movement.

All three works were capably put together and conservative in style, sometimes calling to mind Dvorak's exaltation of folk motifs, with hints of Chinese flavor. Conductor William Hudson drew remarkable performances from a freelance orchestra playing three unfamiliar works after only six hours of rehearsal.

--Joseph McLellan

Clara Sverner

At least a half-century before Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" (1899) had captured the American public, elements of ragtime and other musical styles--generated by the absorption of African rhythms into European harmony--had spread across Latin America. In America's antebellum days, New Orleans composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who lived in Brazil for a while, infused much of his piano music with suggestions of rags and jazz.

On Tuesday, Brazilian pianist Clara Sverner brought the ragtime-inspired works of her earlier compatriot Chiquinha Gonzaga (1847-1935) to the Brazilian-American Cultural Institute. This pioneering suffragette brazenly defied the 19th-century Brazilian domestic code, abandoned her family and plunged into the composition of piano works that immediately became staples of the concert stage and ballroom. Sverner tackled a series of Gonzaga's pieces audaciously, toying with ragtime-syncopated inner melodies over a straightforward bass line. In one example, she spun out a lyrical Chopinesque melodic thread atop a mazurka-like bass.

Sverner gave a rhapsodic account of Brazilian Ernesto Nazareth's (1863-1934) "Improviso para concerto," almost a literal remake of a Schubert impromptu. Her crisp articulation and rhythmic spice made sonatas by the Basque Mateo Albeniz and Catalan Padre Antonio Soler lucid Iberian miniatures. Gottschalk's "Fantasia Triunfal" called for a gripping Neanderthal percussiveness even more pungent on the institute's raw-sounding Steinway.

--Cecelia Porter