When veteran Baltimore guitarist O'Donel Levy was recruited at the last minute to fill in for ailing pianist Stef Scaggiari at Blues Alley on Sunday night, he was prepared to spend the evening performing jazz standards alongside electric bass guitarist Mark Russell and drummer Frank Russo. But once Levy began taking requests -- first for a slow blues, then a fast blues -- the opening set took on an exuberant and freewheeling tone.
Like many jazz musicians who grew up in the '60s, Levy has never abandoned his interest in blues, pop, rock and reggae. Yet he approaches nearly everything he plays from a sophisticated harmonic perspective, coloring the arrangements with plenty of chord substitutions and extensions. Playing an archtop guitar and often getting a big assist from his band mates, he demonstrated remarkable versatility at times, feverishly flat-picking through a Stevie Ray Vaughan-inspired solo one moment, eloquently fingerpicking a Nat King Cole ballad the next. Some of his tune choices were unexpected, to say the least -- he may be the only musician who has ever played "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Honky Tonk Woman" at the Georgetown club. But no matter how far afield he strayed, his stellar six-string technique, warm vocals and engaging personality made for a thoroughly crowd-pleasing combination.
"You can't stump this band!" the jovial guitarist exclaimed more than once during the opening set. He wasn't boasting so much as challenging the audience -- and it turned out he was right, too.
-- Mike Joyce