Michael Brecker Saxophonist Michael Brecker celebrated his 54th birthday at the Barns of Wolf Trap on Saturday night with a compact and frequently compelling performance. Free of chatter and filler, and sans an intermission, the 90-minute concert found Brecker's quartet creating a series of dramatic peaks and engaging grooves, with the reedman's impassioned, fluid tenor leading the way.
On the opening tune, "Arc of the Pendulum," Brecker reminded listeners of his great flair for generating motion and tension with his horn, compressing middle-register motifs into tightly coiled springs that suddenly snap free into a higher octave bursting with energy. His bold harmonic conception has always been tied to John Coltrane's legacy, and nothing better illustrated that fact than an audacious solo interpretation of Coltrane's "Naima," a performance that wed bravura technique to sheer musicality. On "Half Past Late," however, the combination of Brecker's hard-nosed tone and lighthearted spirit evoked images of another saxophone titan -- Sonny Rollins.
Brecker is touring with an exceptional band featuring guitarist Adam Rogers, bassist Chris Minh Doky and drummer Bill Stewart. Each played a significant role in the concert, though none proved more resourceful than Stewart, who orchestrated Brecker's fervent improvisations with dynamic percussive swells and moved ever so lightly through swing progressions. Rogers, who balanced muted lyricism and fiery pentatonics, adroitly compensated for the absence of a pianist, while Doky distinguished himself during an elegiac rendering of Don Grolnick's "The Cost of Living."
-- Mike Joyce
Jazz Ahead Concert An international cast of jazz composers and musicians, ages 21 through 27, got a chance to display their talent Friday night during the Kennedy Center's sixth annual Betty Carter's Jazz Ahead concert at the Millennium Stage. Swing, bop and blues were the primary forms of expression.
The annual performance always caps a series of classes and workshops led by distinguished jazz musicians (this year, Nathan Davis, Curtis Fuller, Jimmy Owens and Winard Harper, among others). Unlike previous concerts, this one didn't venture into uncharted waters, but several pieces managed to stand out: "S'Aight," an entrancing modal piece composed by Czech-born pianist Beata Hlavenkova; "Whistler," an atmospheric portrait of the Oregon coastline by Portland drummer Randy Rollofson; and "A Walk in Spring," a sunny interlude by Brooklyn vocalist Charenee Wade. Along with several female vocalists, including Washington-based Ashley Meier, Wade enhanced other performances as well.
Fourteen compositions were unveiled during the hour, so there was little time to improvise. While some players dutifully took turns soloing, others, such as Houston vibist James Westfall, New York drummer Kyle Struve and Washington-based trumpeter DeAndre Shaifer helped enliven things. No doubt a lot of mainstream jazz fans left the venue heartened by what they heard.
-- Mike Joyce
Zwan at Towson U. Billy Corgan just wants to have fun?
Zwan, the group Corgan formed after dissolution of Smashing Pumpkins, seems sunny in comparison to the infinite sadness of his previous outfit. And Saturday night, at Zwan's only appearance anywhere close to D.C. during its current U.S. tour -- a sellout at Towson University's basketball arena -- the quintet rocked with hopeful vibes: "Whatever I can do, I will / 'Cause I'm good like that," Corgan sang in "Settle Down," culminating a confident 70 minutes of rock.
Zwan rendered selections from its debut album, "Mary, Star of the Sea," with graceful assurance. Guitarists Matt Sweeney (formerly of Chavez) and David Pajo (Slint and Papa M) fleshed Corgan's lean song structures with tasteful rock chops, while Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlain and bassist Paz Lenchantin (A Perfect Circle) thumped a solid bottom end.
Corgan's Zwan songs are leaner and less ostentatious than his previous work, but still bear his unmistakable vocals, making things like the single "Honestly" sound like a dying species: a rock hit. The band is rumored to have a huge repertoire of original songs, but aside from a curiously lifeless version of the Beatles' "Don't Let Me Down," Corgan and company stuck mostly to the "Mary" script, highlighted by takes on "Lyric," "Endless Summer" and "Heartsong," which swirled on Lenchantin's violin.
There were still outbreaks of lumbering psuedo-prog-rock that twisted into wailing guitar rave-ups, but it was actually the after-the-encore image of Corgan shaking hands and tossing guitar picks to the audience that focused the evening best -- Billy seemed like a smiling, happy Zwan.
-- Patrick Foster Cecilia at Iota The members of Cecilia live in New York, but the band formed in Northern Virginia, so every visit back to the Washington area has the feel of a family reunion. Then again, every show is a family affair: Five of the band's six members are related.
At Iota on Friday night, one of the family, Allison Veltz, celebrated her recent 21st birthday: "I'm finally old enough to be in my own shows!" As befits a birthday party, the mood was buoyant as Cecilia reeled off song after joyous song. Allison and sister Laura traded lead vocals and joined mom Jeannie in glorious harmonies, while dad Ken laid down sophisticated beats (with the aid of unrelated bassist Kevin Jacoby) and guitarist Drew, the family's son, reveled in broad, U2-meets-ska axwork.
It makes sense that this group has its elder statesman on drums: Ken drives the station wagon, as it were, though in this case it's more like a souped-up T-Bird: Heavy on the cymbals, unmistakably in love with reggae, he's a powerful product of the '70s. But his daughters were raised on Mariah Carey, and they can wail, scat and croon as well as any pop diva. The magic is in their sweetness: the girlish crush-on-Jimmy-Fallon song "SNL"; "Minnie," a tribute to the family cat that whimsically depicts a feline Jezebel; and the bouncy, jam-band-ready "Stay a Little Longer," all throbbing with spunk and soul. The cross-generational mix had the packed house dancing, singing and willing to stay as long as Cecilia did.
-- Pamela Murray Winters