Cantare & Friends

The Latinization of Washington seems to be advancing as rapidly as gentrification, and musically the results are a notable increase in variety, color and vitality. The chief evidence of this trend is supplied by the "In" Series, an eclectic undertaking whose offerings range from Mozart to cabaret, with particular attention to the area's Hispanic population.

Sunday at the Mexican Cultural Institute, the series presented "Looking South -- Mirando al Sur," a brilliant tribute to Latin American music. It was sung, played and narrated by Cantare & Friends, five highly talented women who sing and collectively play piano, accordion, guitar and a dazzling variety of wind and percussion instruments. The music had a capacity audience springing to its feet, shouting "Otra!" ("Encore!"), clapping in unison and vigorously dancing not in the aisle (not enough room) but in the adjacent lobby under a panoply of Diego Rivera-style murals. It was a concert worthy of one of Washington's most distinctive and beautiful buildings.

The program included folk and popular music from Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Uruguay, Cuba and Brazil, an index of the sheer variety of the cultures that we lump together under the collective term "Latin American." But within that diversity, amid the musical assertions of ethnic identity and pride, there was a strong sense of unity, more than one feels in the United States in this election season. In these countries, a culture that originated in the Iberian Peninsula has interacted creatively with an indigenous culture and African influences, producing strong and distinctive results.

Two things can be said of the nearly 20 composers who were featured on the program: They have not lost touch with their folk traditions, and their music never wanders far from dance forms and spirit. These facts give the music a special quality seldom available from our own music industry.

There will be a repeat performance tonight. It would be worth a considerable effort to be there.

-- Joseph McLellan

Shawn Colvin

Heard over the years from many a Shawn Colvin concertgoer: "She should play more and talk less." At the Rams Head Tavern on Sunday night, the loquacious singer, whose last new release was three years ago, interspersed her familiar compositions and cover songs with rambling anecdotes. "Shotgun Down the Avalanche," "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go," "Round of Blues" . . . so what else is new?

The focus, for one thing. Colvin's stories added a new dimension to old songs. Before "Polaroids," she revealed the song's origin, during her first trip to Europe when she was singing backup for Suzanne Vega and got ensnared in a foolish affair. "A Matter of Minutes," a tense song about wanting to leave home, was written after the birth of her child -- a revelation that was greeted by sympathetic laughter.

The chatter is just part of Colvin's performance persona, which perfectly suited the intimate confines of the Rams Head. Her nimble-fingered guitar work -- Colvin is one of the great guitarists of the singer-songwriter movement -- was as compelling and evocative as her songs. And her voice, which trips and trills around the notes on the page with understated ease, manages, although the singer is in her mid-forties, to evoke both vulnerability and susceptibility to wonder.

Opener Matt Nathanson was equally engaging, and not above a quip about Ashlee Simpson's "Saturday Night Live" debacle the previous night, in which she was caught lip-synching during her performance. This was Nathanson and Colvin's fourth show there in two days, and her sixth in the Washington area in four days. With fortitude born of inspiration and ease born of experience, Colvin did more than pay lip service to musicianship.

-- Pamela Murray Winters

Jamie Cullum

On Sunday night at the 9:30 club, Jamie Cullum broke the stereotypical image of a pianist crooning serenely while seated at his instrument. He did not stay still for a second of the two-hour performance, often dancing at center stage during a drum solo and then leaping back to his piano just in time to return to the music. He bounced on his piano stool, he climbed on top of the instrument and jumped off, and he played not only with his hands but also with his feet and rump.

Cullum translated that physical energy into an engaging performance, experimenting with sound by pounding the piano's body with his palms in a percussive introduction to N.E.R.D.'s "Frontin' " and creating short, tinny tones as he held down the strings with one hand during Radiohead's "High and Dry." Although he played a lot of covers, Cullum's original songs received a warm reception from the full house, which sang along loudly with his tune "Twentysomething." Cullum concluded his set with a lengthy jam, which found him standing on the bar in the club, conducting the crowd in three-part harmony. The enthusiastic cheers brought him back onstage to sing -- while jumping up and down -- a tune appropriate for someone with so much energy: "I Could Have Danced All Night."

-- Catherine P. Lewis