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Live Reviews

Ellington Festival: A Capital Idea

By Published: October 25, 2006

Even without music in the shadow of the Washington Monument, the second annual festival made good use of the many landmarks in the capital. There were free concerts at the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian Sculpture Garden and Library of Congress.

Duke Ellington Jazz Festival
Washington, D.C.
October 5-6, 2006
When a nor'easter came barreling up the Atlantic Coast on Oct. 5-6, the folks behind the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival in Washington, D.C., did what jazz people do best. They improvised.
So the all-day free festival planned that Saturday on the National Mall was divided in two—some sets Saturday, some Sunday—in the historic Lincoln Theater where Ellington himself used to perform.
Even without music in the shadow of the Washington Monument, the second annual festival made good use of the many landmarks in the capital. There were free concerts at the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian Sculpture Garden and Library of Congress. A dinnertime concert in the National Gallery of Art. And two nights at the elegant Willard Hotel including a re-enactment of "A Night at the Cotton Club." At $500 a pop, I didn't get to that.

The music was as impressive as the settings. Just consider the lineup: Roy Haynes, Paquito D'Rivera leading the United Nations Orchestra, John Scofield with Mavis Staples, Poncho Sanchez, Dr. John, Randy Weston, Wallace Roney, Geri Allen, Stephanie Jordan, Luciana Souza with Romero Lubambo, Janis Siegel, and Diego Urcola.

Plus late night gigs at Blues Alley and three clubs in the revitalized U Street neighborhood, once known as "Black Broadway."

The National Endowment for the Arts names a number of "jazz masters" each year, with winners receiving $25,000 fellowships. The announcement of the "Class of 2007" was made at the festival by NEA Chairman Dana Gioia. Honored were bandleader Toshiko Akiyoshi, trombonist Curtis Fuller, pianist Ramsey Lewis, singer Jimmy Scott, reed player Frank Wess, composer-arranger Phil Woods and writer-curator Dan Morgenstern. The honorees will be enshrined Jan. 12 at the annual convention of the International Association for Jazz Education in New York.

The announcement came between sets by two already-installed jazz masters... drummer Haynes and bandleader and reed player D'Rivera.

Haynes, 80, remains as vibrant as ever, leading his "Fountain of Youth" quartet. Highlights were the intricate Monk tune "Trinkle Tinkle," a modal romp on "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" and "Skylark," with alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw swooping and soaring like a bird in flight.

D'Rivera is a buoyant spirit, whether playing or speaking. "I'm the illegal alien jazz master," he joked. Later, talking about the U.N. Orchestra he leads with players from around the globe, he quipped: "We're just like the United Nations. Except, we work!"

Classically trained, hailing from Cuba, mentored by bebop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie, the saxophonist/clarinetist weaves all these elements into the music, with stunning results. I'm particularly fond of his clarinet playing, and he rewarded with a brilliant coda on his heartfelt eulogy "I Remember Diz," briefly reprising a half-dozen of Gillespie's most recognized tunes... yes, the audience knew just when to call out "Salt Peanuts." Later came a bubbly duet with the band's other clarinetist, Anat Cohen.

Guest stars included trumpeter Roy Hargrove and stunning singer Roberta Gambarini. For a grand finale, D'Rivera underlined the international appeal of jazz, bringing on stage a Colombian harp plucker, Edmar Castaneda, and a quartet of Mexican marimba players, Na'rimbo, for an exploration of Venezuelan folk music.

Next day, Poncho Sanchez and his Afro-Cuban septet brought the heat to a cold day, playing selections from their new "TropiBlue" CD and a recent Ray Charles tribute, saluting Ellington with a mellow Francisco Torres sounding on trombone like Tommy Dorsey on "In a Sentimental Mood," playing "Besame Mama" for Sanchez's mentor, Mongo Santamaria, and funking it up on a Booker T and the MGs tune, "Raise Your Hand." The burly, bearded and bereted conguero never fails to excite.

Dr. John and his Lower 9/11 quartet Duked it up, playing tunes from the "Duke Elegant" album of a few years back including the seldom-heard lilting Mexican melody "Flaming Sword." Unfortunately, neither his gruff vocals nor his quintessential New Orleans r&b piano work were well served by muddy sound.

More gritty blues ensued with guitar master Scofield and band's tribute to the late Ray Charles. He had two singers with him. The great gospel belter Mavis Staples wrenched every bit of emotion from "I Can't Stop Loving You" (with a clever guitar-organ intro drawn from "Crying Time." And "Georgia on My Mind" is always a show-stopper.

But the real surprise was Dean Bowman. The riveting vocalist was a man possessed on two of Charles' most exultant hits, "What'd I Say" and "Night Time is the Right Time."

Pianist Dick Morgan, a Washington legend, and a quartet featuring Steve Abshire on guitar, were at their Oscar Peterson-Herb Ellis best at the Willard Hotel. Morgan draws on pop music and gospel for much of his material, enlisting his audience as a makeshift church choir on a couple of occasions. His "Autumn Leaves" variations ranged from the rock anthem "Season of the Witch" to a Chopin Polonaise to a beguiling bossa nova. He's steeped in the blues, too, from a hushed "After Hours" to a stomping "Moten Swing," off his latest album, "9:20 Special," an homage to Basie.

Afro-Cuban music was a staple at the festival. AfroBop Alliance from Annapolis played for the Smithsonian Jazz Cafe's monthly dinner, with Antonio Hart as guest soloist. Hart was also co-leader of "Soul of Corona," from Queens, at the Sunday morning brunch at the Sculpture Garden, with the sun itself showing up for the first time in days. Co-leader Michael Phillip Mossman, Hart and a contingent from Chico O'Farrill's big band, put a Latin spin on jazz standards and r&b and soul favorites. A tasty way to end my festival, though more Ellingtonia was on tap Sunday night.

I also found time to visit Cafe Nema on U Street, where drummer Quincy Phillips led an assertive trio of "Young Lions" one night and South African singer-actress Thembi Mtshali-Jones and a band called "Lalema" conjured up fond memories of Miriam Makeba's sweet soulful sounds.

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