"I love going back wearing different hats," confesses Richard Rodney Bennett of his periodic visits to Washington. In fact, Bennett juggles hats, so varied are his musical guises. A classical composer by training, this native Englishman had a work commissioned for the Bicentennial by the National Symphony, performed a piano-vocal tribute to Hoagy Carmichael at the Corcoran and on Tuesday will open for three weeks as singer Chris Connor's accompanist at Cates. Oh, and who hasn't heard one or two of his film scores? The 50 or so he has to his credit include "Murder on the Orient Express," "Far from the Madding Crowd" and "Equus."

Bennett's parents were professional classical musicians ("They were amazed that I was interested in jazz") and he doesn't recall when he began playing piano or composing. "It's like children draw -- I started writing music," he explains. By the age of 19, Bennett had made up his mind to "earn my living as a composer and nothing else." And that's the way it's been for three decades, with gigs as solo jazz pianist or accompanist, a role that has put him at the keyboard for the likes of Eartha Kitt and Cleo Laine.

"I remember writing her a fan letter in 1960," recalls Bennett of his association with Connor, "and then I got to know her and started playing and arranging for her. It's a very happy collaboration indeed."