It was a night of festivities
and cool jazz as well wishers celebrated Strathmore Music Center's Fifth Anniversary Friday night (2/19) with a cake and
the scintillating performance of Monterey Jazz Festival (MJF) on Tour. On hand was county executive Isiah Leggett who read
a proclamation officially announcing, with board chair Carol Trawick affirming, what most of those in attendance already knew:
Strathmore Music Center is the cultural jewel in the crown of Montgomery County, if not the state of Maryland.
If you've never been there, imagine Carnegie Hall dropped onto Rockville Pike- 150 performances are delivered a year by
two orchestras, a performing arts society, a dance company, and countless world class touring acts such as we were about to
MJF on Tour has a heady discography and listing of Grammy nominations to match. Featuring Kenny Barron
(piano), Regina Carter (violin), Russell Malone (guitar), Kurt Elling (vocals), Kiyoshi Kitagawa (bassist) and Jonathan Blake
(drums), this group was assembled to keep the MJF brand in the public eye for their 53rd season (9/17-19).
Based on what I heard last night, it promises to be a very good one. In fact, the last time I heard a jazz group this
accomplished, I had to travel to the Caribbean. They played a selection of up tempo arrangements and lyrical ballads
with precision, virtuosity, range, and cohesiveness - both fluid and tight. The night was marked by creativity and improvisation:
the classically trained artist performing jazz, a vocalist sounding like an instrument and vice versa, and everyone
shifting the performance of some old standards into another key.
Front man Kurt Elling came out scatting with the
whole the group cooking in the opening number. Perhaps the sight of the approximately 1,500 eager fans in the splendid
energized them. (It's saying a lot that so many turned out on an evening when the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival was
playing just up the road.) Most of MJF gigs on tour were in smaller venues on college campuses, some described as "rooms."
They slowed things down a bit in "When I Grow Too Old to Dream," with Ms. Carter lightly accompanying the vocalist,
then stretching out on tuneful solo and rejoining the vocalist almost as another "voice" on a compelling duo, to
the audience's great delight. They next shifted into overdrive with a downsized - piano, bassist, drums - but very
upbeat arrangement expressing New York with an attitude. Mr. Barron led the charge here, with rapid arpeggios drilling
the keyboard in ascending and descending scales. His playing style demonstrates an economy of motion, with power concentrated
in his fingertips. The dexterous Mr. Kitagawa jumped in, probing the full range of his instrument to evoke a primal
sound from the bass, and segued into a striking quick-time duo with the pianist.
Kurt Malone covered the 1955 classic
"Unchained Melody," delivering the ballad as a mentor suggested "sweet, deep, and slow ... like a kiss."
His electric guitar sounded positively ethereal at times, skipping over the chords to pluck the strings like a harp.
Mr. Elling followed with his arrangement of Rodgers and Hart's "You Are Too Beautiful" and the first half
closed out with a rousing original composition by Mr. Barron, "Calypso," which allowed him to flourish for starters
in a melodic line, then transpose into a jazzy riff, with the vocalist scatting and strings delivering the Caribbean beat
with pizzicatos, which Jonathan Blake polished off in a drumming frenzy before the pianist returned to the spirited theme.
The intermission buzz was animated and carried the audience into the second half with fervor. Mr. Elling got
the faithful going again with "And We Will Fly," by Alan Pasqua, performed in his signature style. His scat
singing comes more frequently fully formed; not so much as an offshoot of the music or improvisation, but as the thematic
point of the piece (he said in the post-show discussion he conceives of it as composing rapidly). He is really a sight
to behold, his vocalizations moving his voice through his body with abandon, like a jitterbugging dancer, or a basketball
player driving the lane for a slam dunk. With the band sizzling, he directed them quickly into an arrangement of Thelonious
Monk's "Rhythm A Ning," scatting on Carmen McRae's lyrics. This Bebop piece exploded with solos
by Ms. Carter, Mr. Malone drawing roars from the crowd, and Mr. Kitagawa and Mr. Blake locked into as memorable a duo of bass
and drums - playing off each other - I've ever seen or heard. Working the duo line, they proceeded to slow things
down with Mr. Barron and Ms. Carter playing a haunting and lyrical rendition of "Georgia," giving the violist free
range to improvise around the melodic tune. And did she ever, bringing the crowd to its feet.
Ms. Carter pulled
out all the stops for Mr. Barron's own composition "Theme Number 1" to the film score Another Harvest Moon
(2009), displaying exquisite technique in a virtuoso solo. The MJF on Tour closed out with the always memorable
"Nature Boy." You've heard Nat and every singer and band in the country and beyond play this piece, but
trust me, after the familiar opening measures, the group delivered a very quick, high voltage take that was out of this world.
After being called back by the cheering crowd, they played a more traditional "It's Alright, It's OK," which
got at least one couple dancing in an upstairs box and everyone ready for a piece or two of anniversary cake, more jazz in
the lobby, and an informative after-show discussion with all band members, moderated by Elliott Pfanstiehl, Strathmore President
& CEO. Happy Birthday, Baby. Looking forward to the 10th!
Sound check: Excellent
Program notes: Very good, with extensive artist bios, and a who's who list of jazz performers
Standing "O," 4+ hands
Runtime: About 2 ½ hours with an intermission and encore
© February 21, 2010 by John F. Glass. All rights reserved.