Harry Connick Jr.
And Branford Marsalis
At the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Sunday night, Harry Connick Jr. coined a phrase to describe one of the more crowd-pleasing aspects of his performance with saxophonist Branford Marsalis: "Total goofus." And that was before things got really silly.
At one point, for reasons too convoluted to explain, pianist Connick described his shock at discovering that Liberace was a terrific jazz musician. Marsalis, none too impressed, then asked if his New Orleans chum also knew any good John Tesh stories. That triggered an impromptu performance of the theme from "Entertainment Tonight," and the laughter in the hall didn't subside until the last note faded.
It wasn't all fun and gamesmanship, though. Connick and Marsalis recently recorded an album of duets called "Occasion," which revealed their rapport in both subdued and spirited settings. The concert was laced with tunes from the album, including the ruminative ballad "I Like Love More," the lighthearted "Spot" and the tenor-sax blues "Good to Be Home."
When the tempo picked up, Connick alluded to the duo's Crescent City roots with syncopated runs, rhythmic fits and starts and thumping chords. Marsalis, who underscored the mood with his piping soprano and robust tenor, evoked a particularly festive mood on the Mardi Gras-inspired "Light the Way." The more abstract pieces, on the other hand, often found the two musicians in quiet sync, anticipating or echoing each other's moves with ease and wit. Despite some tentative moments, the duo capped their brief summer tour -- three performances in all -- on a high note.
Opening the concert was a remarkably interactive quartet led by alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon. A native of Puerto Rico, Zenon devoted the set to tunes from his band's most recent recording, "Jibaro." Referencing Puerto Rican folk melodies and dances with inherent appeal, the pieces were enlivened by Zenon's keening tone, pianist Luis Perdomo's dissonant attack, bassist Ben Street's nimble phrasing, and drummer Henry Cole's exceptional speed and polyrhythmic finesse.
-- Mike Joyce
Vocal Arts Ensemble
To make a living, artists must often yield to commercial realities. Johannes Brahms bowed in that direction with his "Liebeslieder Waltzes," Op. 52, a set of 18 little songs that the composer hoped would sell to the waltz-thirsty amateur musicians of the day. On Sunday evening at the West Garden Court, the National Gallery Vocal Arts Ensemble gave a glowing account of the songs that revealed an underlying richness and intelligence.
The ensemble, including altos Barbara Hollinshead and Roger Isaacs and sopranos Gisele Becker and Rosa Lamoreaux, warmly brought out the texts of Georg Daumer. Lamoreaux displayed a resplendent top range, giving greater definition and brilliance to the sound. Tenor Robert Petillo artfully mingled feelings of bliss and melancholy in "Love Is a Dark Shaft," while basses Bobb Robinson and K.C. Armstrong and tenor Gary Glick carefully blended their voices together. The husband-and-wife duo of Bradford and Maribeth Gowen provided sensitive piano accompaniment.
Etched in similarly flowing tones, the ensemble's reading of Brahms's "Four Songs," Op. 17, rose on the fine playing of harpist Dotian Levalier and horn players Laurel Ohlson and Kristen Davidson, who provided a pulsing foundation for the soaring top-end vocals.
In the second half, this octet of singers did wonders with such contemporary fare as Ned Rorem's seven songs "From an Unknown Past," which merged the spiritual simplicity of a Gregorian chant with shifting modern rhythms.
Judith Weir's whimsical song "Don't Let That Horse" balanced plangent melodies with glistening chords, and James Quitman Mulholland's "How Do I Love Thee" overflowed with emotion. To cap the concert off, the singers upholstered John Gardner's "Seven Songs," Op. 36, with a colorful fabric of sound.
-- Daniel Ginsberg
Every song becomes an "extended version" when the Rev. Al Green is doing the singing. At the 9:30 club on Sunday, he stretched the syllables of the classic ballad "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" and chided his band for trying to speed him along. "Y'all might as well stop trying to play so fast," he informed them. " 'Cause I'm-a sing all of this song."
Wearing a black three-piece suit and a gigantic gold cross, the inimitable southern soul singer alternated between slow jams and lively toe-tappers, but no matter the tempo, he took his time. He gave soul claps and screeches, whipped his suit jacket on and off, put in footwork alongside his dancers and otherwise displayed showmanship that silenced the complaints of fans unaccustomed to seeing Green at a venue that has only a few concrete bleachers to sit on.
Green didn't perform anything from this year's release "Everything's OK," but he did deliver the three non-secular songs that have become highlights of his stage show. He began with the contemporary gospel of "Everything's Gonna Be Alright," showed off his falsetto with "Amazing Grace" and howled and screamed his way through a version of "Nearer My God to Thee" that was more rousing than even the baddest Baptist church band could offer.
He again refused to be rushed during "Tired of Being Alone." The song is one of Green's finest collaborations with producer Willie Mitchell, and he gave it the royal treatment, letting his horn section repeat the opening riff a few extra times as he softly chanted "So tired." But at least one woman launched into the chorus before Green could get around to it. "Wait a minute, baby, let me start singing first!" he said.
-- Sarah Godfrey
Mark Knopfler inspires far fewer air guitarists than a typical rock-guitar hero. Not because folks don't know or don't love his playing, but because no hand gestures can approximate all the sounds he produces.
During his rendition of "Sultans of Swing" at Wolf Trap on Sunday, for example, he threw in all the parts that made up perhaps the most famous solo of the 1970s. But the performance left those wanting to mimic the fingerpicked licks just shaking their heads or screaming with awe and glee.
Knopfler, who turns 56 next month, broke up his old band, Dire Straits, for probably the final time in 1995, and tours only rarely. For most of the last two decades he has devoted more artistic energy to film soundtracks ("The Princess Bride," among others) than to making the sort of rock music that Straits fans desired. He stayed away from the movie music in his spectacular two-hour set, but did include some of his post-Straits singles, the rockiest being "Boom, Like That," a song from last year about the McDonald's-ization of our culture.
But he spent most of the night satiating fans' desires to hear him "singing oldies, goldies," just like the protagonist in "Walk of Life," Knopfler's 1985 smash. On some vintage tunes, Knopfler's musical influences seemed plainer than they once did. "So Far Away " now sounds like a song Roxy Music should have done. "Telegraph Road," with dramatic keyboard passages (provided by longtime Lyle Lovett sideman Matt Rollins) and its put-upon blue-collar characters, was revealed as a cousin of Springsteen's "Jungleland."
But the show's best moments were those that were singularly Knopfler's. His elongated version of "Romeo and Juliet" was even heavier than the original, itself as heavy a love song as pop produced in the frivolous '80s. When he got to the song's familiar and still-wondrous guitar solo, Knopfler stared with a blank expression at his fingers moving along the fretboard, as if he was as dumbfounded by what was taking place as so many of the fans.
-- Dave McKenna