Sure, Babyface has provided artists such as Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston with incredible statue-nabbing, chart-dominating songs, but how hard is it to make a powerhouse vocalist look good? Although Kenneth Edmonds defined R&B and pop in the 1990s, his contributions as a songwriter and producer should not be measured by his work with proven superstars, but by the assistance he has given those who don't exactly have star quality to spare.
While running through a medley of the songs Babyface has written and produced for other artists during his performance Thursday night at the Show Place Arena, the 10-time Grammy winner showed just how boundless his musical gifts are with a rendition of "Can We Talk?," a song written for Tevin Campbell. Thanks to a bright track and cuddly, age-appropriate lyrics, Babyface made the teen singer seem cool, if only for a brief moment.
But more than anything, Babyface, who appeared with En Vogue and Charlie Wilson, used the performance to show off his singing abilities, which have long been overshadowed by his production work. In his usual tone of sweet, strained desperation, he offered material from his latest album, this year's "Grown & Sexy": the title track and "Sorry for the Stupid Things," which he dubbed man's "official apology" song.
Mostly, however, Babyface treated the half-full arena to the hits they were most familiar with: the lite jazz of "For the Cool in You," the torrid "Whip Appeal," and the pleasant acoustic-guitar-driven ballad "When Can I See You Again." Babyface even revisited his days with The Deele (but thankfully not his time with Manchild) with "Two Occasions," but when he inserted a dramatic pause into the song, the fans kept singing. "Can I do this?" he asked, before continuing.
-- Sarah Godfrey
Saxophonist Joshua Redman's Elastic Band proved even more flexible than usual at Blues Alley on Thursday night by accommodating a request for a pop standard. About the only tune in the band's jazz-funk repertoire that even remotely qualifies as such is Led Zeppelin's "The Crunge." But after confessing he felt "like Ebenezer Scrooge" for initially disappointing the fan, Redman graciously unfurled a soulful tenor sax rendering of "What's New?"
Bracketing that performance was the kind of power-charged, rhythmically crackling music that most listeners came to hear. When "The Crunge" popped up during the opening set, for example, the combination of drummer Jeff Ballard's splintered funk beats, guitarist Mike Moreno's riffing, extended chords and Redman's honking shouts emphasized the song's James Brown-to-Zep connection. When the focus shifted to Sam Yahel, beginning with "Shut Your Mouth" and "Put It in Your Pocket," the keyboardist deftly conjured a wide variety of soul-jazz organ and Fender Rhodes fusion grooves, in addition to underpinning nearly all the tunes with slippery bass lines.
Though Redman briefly played soprano sax, his robust turns on tenor triggered the evening's highlights, including a richly atmospheric take on Sheryl Crow's "Riverwide." The electronic effects used by Redman and Yahel throughout the set were almost always imaginatively deployed, producing colorful textures and whimsical touches. With two sets to perform, the band never built up the kind of momentum it has generated in concerts at larger venues. But judging by the final ovation, no one was complaining. The engagement runs through tomorrow.
-- Mike Joyce
You know it's time for the National Symphony Orchestra's "Happy Holidays!" pops concert when the Kennedy Center Concert Hall is festooned with seasonal decorations, young children are watching the proceedings raptly and someone wearing a gigantic, sports-mascot-like mouse head bounds onto the stage. Well, maybe that last one was a surprise. "Maestro Mouse," the protagonist of a recent children's book, attempted to stir the audience with bad puns and requests for applause, but longtime NSO pops conductor Marvin Hamlisch beat him at both these tasks on Thursday night.
Hamlisch knows how to juxtapose joyful musicmaking with the broadest possible humor, and the concert provided ample helpings of both. NSO contrabassoonist Lewis Lipnick merrily mocked his instrument's less refined (read: flatulent) tones while costumed as the "Hanukkah Elf." Santa Claus, played by baritone Kevin Glavin, lauded himself in the third person during "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," breaking open the melody over big-band brass hits. Hamlisch himself lost no opportunity to ham it up, even breaking out a Jewish-grandfather accent just before the world premiere of his Hanukkah song, "A Season of Miracles," performed winningly by tenor Michael H. Belinkie.
Other musical moments to savor came from NSO violinist Jenny Oaks Baker, playing Schubert's "Ave Maria" with quiet intensity; the Children's Chorus of Washington, bringing its bright voices to classic carols; and especially the Unified Voices, a local gospel group that took "O Holy Night" and "Joy to the World" to another level. Its infectious rhythms and soaring voices, along with Hamlisch's well-judged accompaniment, made for the best kind of pops holiday.
The program will be repeated tonight at 8 and tomorrow at 7.
-- Andrew Lindemann Malone
Joshua Redman, giving the people what they want at Blues Alley.