Grady Tate at Blues Alley

There was little wrong with Grady Tate's performance at Blues Alley Thursday night that a little rehearsal time and judicious editing wouldn't have fixed.

The veteran jazz drummer and singer joined the local Thad Wilson Jazz Orchestra as its featured vocalist for the evening. From the outset, it was clear that Tate's baritone has lost none of its warmth and charm. He brought a romantic eloquence to several jazz and pop standards, delivered his boastful anthem "TNT" with plenty of brio and scatted with such harmonic finesse that even a few members of the band's reed section seemed mightily impressed.

Tate also collaborated with pianist and fellow Howard University faculty member Charles Covington in an intimate quartet setting that produced a haunting version of the rarely heard Gordon Parks tune "Don't Misunderstand." Unfortunately, Tate's choice of material wasn't always so inspired. Despite a swiftly paced reading, the painfully trite "Feeling Free" seemed to last forever.

Trumpeter and bandleader Wilson deserves credit for fashioning a series of big-band arrangements that complemented Tate's fondness for Count Basie-like swing tunes and R&B-tinged ballads. Without a rehearsal, though, the ensemble was bound to encounter the tentative moments and miscues that dotted the evening's opening set. While several soloists had a chance to shine, including Wilson, the band no doubt sounds a lot more confident and comfortable when performing at its home base--One Step Down--on Monday nights.

-- Mike Joyce

Pianist Wojciech Switala

Wojciech Switala's all-Chopin recital at the Polish Embassy Thursday was part of the month-long series of concerts and lectures devoted to Chopin and sponsored by the Ministry of Culture and Arts of Poland in collaboration with the Alliance Francaise of Washington. Switala was at his considerable best in the Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise, where he kept the line taut and the rhythms strongly defined. The lace and tracery of the difficult passage work were airily transparent, the voicings luxuriant and the legato finely spun.

Switala met the technical challenges of two of Chopin's largest soundscapes head on: the "Revolutionary" Etude (Op. 10, No. 12) and the Op. 25, No. 12, which crowns the second and last set of etudes and requires huge bass sonorities generated amid waves of arpeggios constantly spanning the keyboard. One can cavil--these were heavily pedaled performances, and some detail was lost in the haze--but the volcanic intensity and heat that define the character of these pieces came through.

The A-flat Ballade and B Minor Scherzo were successfully if conventionally negotiated. Chopin's greatest Nocturne, the Op. 48, No. 1, sounded curiously pedestrian, its plaintive urgency turned brusque and its colors muted to cool blues and grays. A set of mazurkas (Op. 24) and three waltzes (Op. 64) moved fluently but objectively, without much rhythmic lilt or profile. Occasionally, as Switala released the sustaining pedal, the harmonies were splattered, with notes at various stages of decay lingering unevenly.

-- Ronald Broun

NewGrange at Wolf Trap

"We take old songs and make them new, and new songs and make them old," quipped guitarist Tim O'Brien at the Barns of Wolf Trap Thursday night. And jokes aside, his group NewGrange did that--while also managing a lively concoction of string band roots, modern bluegrass and moody piano.

Though the program was billed as comprising seasonal tunes, the sextet instead focused on songs from their eponymous record, while lightly sprinkling holiday tunes throughout. Which was fine, since NewGrange's bewildering bluegrass and folk virtuosity proved a feast for the ears and eyes. Mandolinist-guitarist Mike Marshall's fingers blurred during inventive runs in nearly every selection, especially a reading of "Sally Ann." O'Brien handled vocals, shining on fiddler Darol Anger's jazzy arrangement of "Going to Boston" and on the spiritual standard "Rock in a Weary Land," where pianist Philip Aaberg contributed a fine solo.

Banjoist Alison Brown's low-key style was occasionally overshadowed by that of her flashier band mates, but her contributions were models of brevity that channeled the style of another clever fusionist, Bela Fleck.

Bassist Todd Phillips had the difficult task of anchoring such superlative players, and he somehow managed it. His melodic timekeeping, especially in "Stone Coal West Virginia" and Brown's "Weetabix," often stole the spotlight.

Ultimately, the levity and communication (and complete lack of ego) NewGrange achieved made every number interesting. Considering the high standards these musicians set for themselves, such cohesion, whether during a taut, keening "Greensleeves" or the New Agey jazz-grass of "Shoot the Moon," was definitely cool.

--Patrick Foster

Pianist Rico Gulda

The young pianist Rico Gulda is headed in the right direction. He has a touch that probes the resonant depths of piano sound without exposing the harsh percussiveness that can result from power applied mindlessly. Thursday evening he treated the Austrian Embassy's Boesendorfer instrument to a mixture of works that stylistically demand knowing hands in different ways.

Though Gulda categorized Haydn's Sonata in B Minor (Hob. XVI/32) as exemplifying the composer's middle-period Sturm und Drang, it really exhibits that quirky, embellished delicacy that predated his mature classicism. Gulda outlined in telling detail the music's jolting shifts of expressive devices and dynamic levels.

Following the practice of sandwiching modern works between more traditional ones, Gulda said, he chose samples from "Play Piano Play," a suite of pedagogical works by Gulda's father, the Austrian pianist Friedrich Gulda. Miles from modern, they exude fugue-like jazz and hazy blues reflecting the mind-set of a 1940s Manhattan cocktail bar pianist.

Before charging through Robert Schumann's exhausting Symphonic Etudes, Gulda sailed into three late Schubert pieces in which he expressively outlined how a great composer transforms standard compositional techniques into art. In Gulda's hands, reams of melodic configurations became outbursts of ecstasy, and subtle harmonic changes turned repeated ideas into revelations.

--Cecelia Porter