Eddie Palmieri

How long has it been since people actually danced at Blues Alley? Perhaps not since Latin jazz pianist, bandleader and salsa great Eddie Palmieri last performed at the Georgetown club.

During his sextet's opening set on Tuesday night, a couple succumbed to the band's polyrhythmic thrust and twirled themselves silly. Yet the 68-year-old pianist wasn't catering to a salsa crowd. The focus was on jazz harmonies and extended improvisations as well as Afro-Caribbean pulses, with trumpeter Brian Lynch and alto saxophonist Donald Harrison often merging in brash unison or producing bold contrasts.

"Picadillo," a vintage Tito Puente anthem, kicked off the show. The pianist fashioned a little rhapsody in free time, then moved into tempo with hammered chords and dissonant runs that revealed a debt to Thelonious Monk. Several original tunes took a similar tack. "Bolero Dos," however, briefly found Palmieri mining the blues scale with a gleeful touch, while "Don't Stop the Train" was distinguished by blaring horns and juggernaut-like momentum. The melodies, variations and improvised flights played by Lynch and Harrison often soared over Palmieri's dense, chord-driven montuno vamps and the crackling rhythmic weave created by Jose Claussell on timbales, Johnny Rivero on congas and Jose Santiago on bass.

Now celebrating his 50th year as a performer, Palmieri didn't leave much room for selections from his new, all-star session CD, "Listen Here!" But the album's title track, a soul-jazz classic composed by Eddie Harris, coupled with the pianist's signature theme "Comparsa," brought the set to an exultant close.

The engagement runs through Sunday.

-- Mike Joyce

Rock Creek Festival

John Rutter may be best known for the fine Christmas carols he has contributed to the repertoire. But carols are not all that he does. On Tuesday, for the fourth day of this year's Rock Creek Festival, he was on hand at the Great Hall of the venerable St. Paul's Church complex to show off his delightful six-movement "Suite Antique" for flute and chamber orchestra and "Feel the Spirit," a cycle of seven big concert-size arrangements of well-known spirituals in a variety of styles for chorus, orchestra and mezzo-soprano.

His forces were the singers of the Columbia Collegiate Chorale and the New England Symphonic Ensemble (both from Columbia Union College in Takoma Park) and the Choir of St. Paul's Rock Creek Parish, and he led them with a sprightly enthusiasm that engaged both the performers and the audience. It was an outstanding concert in every respect.

Rutter writes music that is intended to please and does so easily and without pretension. The suite was salon music at its most playful. Flutist Alicia Saunders (inexcusably, her name did not appear in the program) rolled through the ornamental and lyrical lines with exuberant elegance, and the orchestra sounded assured and well rehearsed with every jazzed-up rhythm and pizzicato in place.

Mezzo-soprano Kenniecia Grant handled the solos in the spirituals with gorgeous warmth and musical common sense. The accompaniments hinted (sometimes broadly) at blues, ragtime, New Orleans jazz and revival ecstasy, and the orchestra handled all this beautifully while the chorus did a splendid job with Rutter's chorally savvy writing.

The evening opened with a nicely shaped reading of the Vivaldi "Gloria." This is not the most challenging piece of music in the repertoire but it is a dangerous one that can very easily fall into a sort of mind-numbing sameness of phrasing. Rutter avoided this by combining short phrases into longer ones, attending carefully to dynamic contrasts and taking every opportunity to let the inflection of the texts speak naturally. All of this was aided immeasurably by the hall's wonderful acoustics.

-- Joan Reinthaler