Jazz pianist Mulgrew Miller has always been sorely under-appreciated, so it wasn't surprising to find some empty seats at Blues Alley on Friday night. But those who attended the late show were rewarded with a performance that revealed Miller's extraordinary gifts in both intimate and expansive settings.
The veteran pianist is touring with a reconstituted version of Wingspan, a terrific five-piece ensemble comprised of saxophonist Steve Wilson, trumpeter Duane Eubanks, vibist Steve Nelson, bassist Darrell Hall and drummer Karriem Riggins. Beginning with a vibrant post-bop excursion inspired by the Hank Mobley tune "Breakthrough," the band's unusual instrumentation created fresh harmonies and triggered a series of complementary solos. The contributions made by Nelson, one of Miller's oldest collaborators, were particularly enjoyable throughout the set, brimming with melodic variations and splashing harmonies. Eubanks's trumpet and Wilson's alto and soprano, on the other hand, provided the front line with plenty of soulful ballast.
Miller could be extremely self-effacing, devising subtle and sparse accompaniments. But when he had the spotlight, sometimes joined by just bass and drums, his response was invariably eloquent and inventive, no matter how brisk the tempo. His light and nimble touch was beautifully showcased when the band played Donald Brown's charming homage "Waltz for Monk," while one of Miller's own compositions, the rhythmically explosive "Eleventh Hour," took full advantage of his percussive power and orchestral sweep. That tune, powerfully charged by Hall and Riggins, stood in sharp contrast to the evening's most tender performance: Miller's haunting, harmonically imaginative solo arrangement of "It Never Entered My Mind."
-- Mike Joyce
Eva Ybarra y Su Conjunto
You didn't have to venture to a late-night club to go dancing on Friday. At the Smithsonian Folklife Festival's La Fonda Stage, a number of combos had people moving around the floor. Eva Ybarra y Su Conjunto, from San Antonio, play conjunto, a South Texas genre known primarily for its sped-up polka rhythms (as well as the Spanish word for "ensemble").
One of the few female conjunto accordionists, Ybarra led her band through a relaxed set that included more mid-tempoed rancheras and fewer polkas than in her earlier festival appearances. Thanks to her deep voice, her squeeze-box's Latinized oompah melodies, the twang of the bajo sexto and a funky drum and bass section, the rancheras ("Morena Morenita" among them) and polkas ("San Antonio Rose") worked.
Franklin Hernandez y Sus Tipican Brothers, from Philadelphia via the Dominican Republic, specialize in a type of traditional merengue called perico ripiao. In the hands of this unit (which has no actual siblings), this cousin of salsa was played at contemporary speeds that rivaled any dance club style. Singer and bandleader Hernandez, a large man dispensing quick-fingered runs on a tiny accordion, guided his group through the skipping syncopation of adapted standards like "Coleta Blanca." The driving beat came from an electric bassist and a tambora drummer banging a stick on one end of his horizontally-held drum and his palm on the other.
Aided by the distinctive scraping of the guiro (metal cylinder) percussionist, the blare of the saxophonist and vocal harmonies from all, the outfit showed the ongoing resonance of their island music.
-- Steve Kiviat
Poor Bembeya Jazz. This recently reunited group from Guinea has long been hailed as one of Africa's greatest dance bands. Thus, its D.C. appearance should have been as triumphant as the recent appearance by fellow comeback vets Orchestra Baobab. Unfortunately, lack of publicity for the event and sound system delays at Kili's Kafe meant that the eight-piece group played before only about 60 people late on Saturday night (actually, 2:30 Sunday morning). Those individuals were rewarded for their patience though with a fine show that lived up to the hype.
Led by original guitarist Sekou "Diamond Fingers" Diabate, Bembeya Jazz merged homegrown Manding region arrangements in which chordal patterns repeat cyclically, with Congolese and Cuban accents. Despite having a smaller membership than in its '60s and '70s prime, the current version had a remarkably full sound. On "A Koukou We" M'bemba Camara's vocals ecstatically soared atop swirling, high-pitched polyrhythms, courtesy of two guitars, bass, conga and drums. Intermittently through that cut and others, the two-piece horn section sweetened the sound even further.
While the group sounded strongest on such upbeat cuts, the musicians showed their range of talent by also playing the melancholy "Doni Doni" with its dulcet soprano sax solo responded to by guitarist Diabate. The focus of the group, he could teach Eric Clapton a thing or two. Whether propelling "Sabou" with skittering lines, or coaxing out a spectrum of sounds on showcases from his new "Guitar Fo" CD, Diabate beautifully served the songs with very little self-indulgence.
-- Steve Kiviat