There's no unplugging Al Jarreau. Always terrifically animated in concert, the multiple Grammy Award-winning singer seemed hard-wired to a backstage generator at the Warner Theatre on Saturday night. But his six band mates were unplugged when the concert opened. They huddled around Jarreau, providing mostly percussive support while he embarked on a freely improvised trek down "Route 66."
Bringing "greetings from Planet Positivity," Jarreau also brought along a few songs from his new jazz-oriented CD, "Accentuate the Positive." Both "Midnight Sun" and "Cold Duck" proved refreshing, though for different reasons. The former provided an intimate interlude, with Jarreau and keyboardist Larry Williams making certain the romantic lyric lingered in the air. The latter, an Eddie Harris tune sporting a joyous Jarreau lyric, vibrantly punctuated a performance that was loaded with well-worn concert staples, including "Take Five" and "Boogie Down."
A few more tunes from the new album would have been welcome, but the crowd clearly couldn't get enough of Jarreau reviving "Mornin' " and other favorites. No one, however, seemed to be having more fun than the singer himself, especially when he got a chance to allow his still remarkably pliable voice to take wing.
During the opening set, singer-keyboardist Oleta Adams shrugged off some minor equipment problems. "I was singing long before we got all this fancy gear -- in the church," she said. Her soulful alto revealed her gospel roots throughout a quintet performance that spanned and often elevated R&B, country and funk tunes. Small wonder Jarreau later sang her praises -- literally.
-- Mike Joyce
The National Philharmonic's three-day Summer Chamber Music Festival at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre in Rockville ended with an evening of duets on Friday and trios on Saturday. The music ranged in vintage from Bach to Ravel and Gershwin, with only one composer, Amy Beach, represented on both programs.
The performances confirmed once again that the National Philharmonic (formerly the Montgomery Chamber Orchestra) uses some of the finest freelance musicians in the Washington area. The performers in these two programs were violinist Amy Beth Horman and pianist Michael Sheppard on Friday; violinist Jody Gatwood, cellist Lori Barnet and pianist Philip Hosford on Saturday -- first-class musicians, one and all.
The most immediately attractive works in the two programs were Dvorak's sparkling, melodious "Dumky" Trio, Jascha Heifetz's arrangement of music from "Porgy and Bess" and Ravel's wildly inventive Sonata for Violin and Piano.
In the Dvorak, Gatwood and Barnet handled the Czech folk-style melodies and dance rhythms with exemplary unanimity, rhythmic energy and subtly accented phrasing. Hosford was an equal partner when he might have dominated the sound, an achievement even more impressive in Schumann's romantic, sometimes troubled Piano Trio No. 1.
In the Ravel, a veritable anthology of violin techniques, Horman showed not only nimble, precise style but a cool intelligence aware of the deeper meanings behind the pizzicati, glissandi and double-stops. The performance subtly highlighted Ravel's admiration for George Gershwin, particularly in the slow movement titled "Blues." The Heifetz transcriptions of Gershwin highlight sentiment more than technique, a fact fully recognized in the performance, particularly the deeply expressive "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" and the cleverly naughty "It Ain't Necessarily So." In Bach's Sonata in E, BWV 1016, Horman phrased the quasi-dance and quasi-vocal passages with equal stylistic awareness.
Beach's slight, gently melodious Romance, Op. 23, for violin and piano and her more substantial and inventive Trio in A Minor, Op. 150, showed how this American composer had grown during her long career.
-- Joseph McLellan
Leaving the Norah Jones show at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Friday night, one felt a mysterious urge to pop in that CD you bought on impulse at Starbucks and cruise over to the nearest Pottery Barn. Maybe it was the stylin' lamps suspended above the stage or the sumptuous red velvet curtains or the throw rugs under the piano, but something -- probably the gauzy drift of Jones's songs -- was urging the near-sellout crowd to embrace the language of laid-back style and taste.
And because her second album, "Feels Like Home," works the same earthy fusion of blues, country-folk and gentle jazz that made her debut album such a stunning commercial success, the show was a delight for Jones devotees: a steamy embrace of her languid musical vision and gripping voice.
The evening started with a video message from TV's Hank Hill (of the animated series "King of the Hill"), warning that fellow Texan Jones would get violent if any cell phones went off during the show, but that was about as edgy as things got.
From the evocative opening meditation of "What Am I to You?" to a cover of the Band's "Life Is a Carnival," the pace rarely broke from a healthy lope. When it did, as on the country shuffle of "Creepin' In" (Daru Oda sang the part Dolly Parton took on the recording), Jones's Handsome Band sounded tentative. They were more comfortable with the lithe heartbreak of "Humble Me" or a sauntering interpretation of Kathleen Brennan and Tom Waits's "Long Way Home." And if the show didn't offer much in the way of surprises, Jones's easy grace at the piano and her clear love for her craft were enough to make the trip to Columbia worthwhile.
-- Patrick Foster
Guitarist George Benson hasn't become a perennial favorite at Wolf Trap by ignoring requests. And during his dozen-plus appearances at the venue, fans have never been shy about making their wishes known. So the hits kept coming Friday night -- "This Masquerade," "Breezin'," "Love X Love," "Everything Must Change" -- in quick succession. Some were rearranged, others faithfully rendered, but all contributed to a thoroughly crowd-pleasing summer soundtrack.
Though one of the architects of smooth jazz, Benson occasionally alluded to some of his early jazz influences. Supported by a versatile sextet, he fired off boppish guitar flourishes, recalled Wes Montgomery's affection for playing thumb-stroked octaves, and, while performing the whimsical and scat-laced "Moody's Mood," tipped his hat to jazz elder James Moody. Mostly, though, Benson celebrated his own pop successes, filling the air with familiar melodies and R&B grooves that often triggered cheers, chants and singalongs throughout the amphitheater.
Percussionist and vocalist Kenya Hathaway, daughter of the late singer-songwriter Donny Hathaway, was prominently featured. Her lovely voice was a big plus, though her talent wasn't always put to good use. In fact, "Cell Phone," a vocal duet drawn from Benson's spotty new CD, "Irreplaceable," turned out to be disposable.
Far more enjoyable was "The Ghetto," the Donny Hathaway hit, which inspired a freewheeling excursion into vintage R&B, colored by keyboardist David Garfield's electric piano. In the end, Benson played the crowd nearly as well as he played the guitar, reserving "Give Me the Night" and "On Broadway" for the climactic one-two punch.
-- Mike Joyce