John Eaton at Wolf Trap Barns Pianist John Eaton didn't exactly kick off "The Fabulous Fred Astaire Factor," the first of his three concerts this season at the Wolf Trap Barns. There would be no dancing, he announced at the outset of his performance Saturday night, as if to allay the audience's greatest fear.
Instead, Eaton offered up one astonishing reminder after another of how Astaire, the seemingly ill-equipped son of an Omaha brewer, became a "song magnet" who attracted some of the finest creations of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer and other top composers. Writing with Astaire in mind frequently brought out the best in them -- as Eaton illustrated through a series of delightful and sometimes instructive solo piano arrangements.
The sheer number of great tunes, to say nothing of Eaton's complementary keyboard artistry and engagingly low-key vocals, guaranteed a lull-proof evening. But in addition to skimming through the Great American Songbook and handily reviving such pop perennials as "Fascinating Rhythm," "Night and Day," "Cheek to Cheek" and "My Shining Hour," Eaton devoted time to less familiar gems that were equally appealing, if not more so. And, as always, the pianist annotated the performance in deadpan fashion, mixing insightful asides with amusing digressions.
Eaton will pay similar tribute to Hoagy Carmichael, Richard Rodgers and other composers when he returns to the Barns for performances in January and March. In the meantime, the Smithsonian Associates will present him in concert at the Voice of America Auditorium on Dec. 7.
-- Mike Joyce
Alex Bugnon at Blues Alley As if to make sure that no one mistakes his brand of smooth jazz for elevator music, Swiss-born keyboardist Alex Bugnon loves to crank up the sound in concert -- so much so that his quartet's performance at Blues Alley on Friday night was irritatingly loud.
A pity, too, since Bugnon's extensive background in R&B is enough to set him apart from most of the smooth-jazz competition. Playing electric piano and additional keyboards, he frequently laced tunes with allusions to old-school soul and funk traditions. Vincent Henry, doubling on guitar and alto sax, enhanced the R&B atmospherics with wah-wah tones and keening riffs, while drummer Poogie Bell and electric bassist Victor Bailey moved back and forth between clipped rhythms and slippery grooves.
The pairing of Bell and Bailey, the latter well known in fusion jazz circles, was often refreshing -- a far cry from the computer-generated backbeats that make so many contemporary jazz tunes sound alike. Though heard to better advantage in much more challenging settings, Bailey soloed with customary finesse and kept the rhythmic pulse from falling into predictable patterns.
Bugnon's radio-friendly instincts were nearly always obvious during the opening set. In addition to performing crowd-pleasing reprises of "Piano in the Dark" and "107 in the Shade," the keyboardist silenced the packed house with his now-pensive, now-raging 9/11 anthem "Sunset Over Manhattan." Still, there was no ignoring the sonic overkill, which made even some of the romantic ballads sound shrill and overwrought.
-- Mike Joyce