Saxophonist Frank Morgan
Sounding even more reflective than usual, saxophonist Frank Morgan made himself comfortable at Blues Alley on Saturday night. The 70-year-old alto player, who reemerged in the '80s after a battle with drug addiction, pulled up a chair and remained seated for most of his quartet's opening set. As the evening unfolded, he casually infused a collection of familiar ballads, bop anthems and Thelonious Monk tunes with a tart tone and gliding phrases.
A dyed-in-the-wool bebopper, Morgan doesn't generate great harmonic verve these days; soulful balladry has become his forte. But he still enjoys the thrill of the race when the tempo quickens and chord changes fly by.
A brisk arrangement of "On Green Dolphin Street" and a vibrant "Night in Tunisia" revealed Morgan's lasting debt to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, though most of the heavy lifting on the up-tempo tunes was done by pianist George Cables, bassist Curtis Lundy and drummer Ronnie Burrage. Cables, a frequent collaborator with Morgan over the years, served as a sonic foil, introducing new tacks and dynamics during his improvisations. Lundy and Burrage provided plenty of drive and interaction, with the drummer adding spirited scat vocals now and then.
Still, nothing proved more absorbing than the sound of Morgan rekindling the melodic charm of "Prelude to a Kiss" or poignantly interpreting "Everything Happens to Me." With the subtle support of his band mates, the saxophonist pared these tunes to the haunting essentials.
-- Mike Joyce
Mali's Salif Keita
Malian maestro Salif Keita can seem like a bystander at his own concerts. He spends long periods stalking the stage against his band's rippling vamps, and his falsetto vanishes into the near-identical tones of the female backing vocalists. But then Keita suddenly transposes to his principal register, and his commanding tenor utterly dominates the hall.
That dramatic shift occurred many times Friday night at Lisner Auditorium, where Keita and his 10-piece band performed a slightly choppy set. A fund- and consciousness-raiser for efforts to aid refugees in Sudan, the concert was interrupted after four songs for a banal film on a compelling topic: the United Nations' efforts to assist displaced persons worldwide. Keita and his group quickly recovered from the interruption, though. When they were onstage, the mood in the auditorium was ebullient.
The singer's latest album, 2002's "Moffou," is subdued and traditional, relying mostly on acoustic timbres. Friday's show, however, was for dancing.
Keita led his ensemble -- which was divided equally between African and Western instruments -- through familiar favorites, including "Mandjou" and "Africa." These sprawling songs, which draw on Cuban jazz and American funk, sparked the customary reaction: Undulating fans filled the aisles and occasionally the stage, showering the musicians with money.
There was also a new, and less charming, ritual: posing onstage with the musicians for cell phone camera photos. Yet even this could not disrupt the band's grooves, which chimed piquantly till Keita blew a farewell kiss to the crowd and disappeared.
-- Mark Jenkins