Chopteeth (shown here in 2007) played a blend of Afrobeat and ska.
Chopteeth (shown here in 2007) played a blend of Afrobeat and ska.

Highlights from our festival coverage on Black Plastic Bag

La Timbistica and Chopteeth

9:30 Club

“The future of la musica is assured,” a beaming Jim Byers informed the 9:30 Club on last Friday night.

Byers, the host of WPFW’s “Latin Flavor,” spoke after a stellar performance by La Timbistica, a salsa outfit also known as the Berklee College of Music Latin Jazz All-Stars. The group alternates between five-piece Latin jazz unit and full-on salsa band; in both formats, they’re astonishing. Juan Maldonado deserves special mention for his efforts on the six-string bass, as does Kalani Trinidad for his searing flute and fine voice, both of which cut admirably through the bright wall of the high brass. Throughout, the band exemplified a classical precision infused with lively improvisation—most notably by Alex Brown, whose eclectic work on the keyboard kept the band from retreating, anonymous, into a genre that too often overshadows its practitioners.

The Timbistica crew were passing out promo materials and enjoying a few well-deserved beers when Chopteeth took the stage. The D.C.-based group, which calls itself an “Afrofunk orchestra,” launched into a groovy set that veered between the reedy guitar dance lines of classic Afrobeat and a sophisticated brand of ska. “Struggle,” the first track on its debut album, was a highlight, as was its funky reinterpretation of Duke Ellington’s “Didgeridoo.” Led by the magnanimous duo of Anna Mwalagho (vocals) and Michael Shereikis (vocals and guitar), Chopteeth bounced and rolled for close to an hour, with fat sounds from the Korg organ sailing under the snarling five-piece horn brigade. Its members smiled, danced, colored the two Kenyan songs with neat accordion lines, and took audience requests. “The dancers want more Fela,” Shereikis laughed at one point.


ON Monday, OCT. 6, AT 5:30 P.M.

Jazz on the National Mall

Taj Mahal isn’t a jazz man, of course, but he’s a blues legend—and a powerful one. Put it this way: During “Annie Mae,” four songs into his guitar-drenched set, one of the speakers at the lip of the stage began smoking. The roadie who disconnected and hauled it off actually got an ovation from the crowd.

Even Mahal’s blues, though, are constructed like jazz, especially in the way they draw from a variety of sources. He performed his “Baby, You’re My Destiny” with a faint reggae beat, combined with a nasty Howlin’ Wolf croak in his voice. “Zanzibar,” meanwhile, was broader than the title indicates; it was a love song to all of Africa, backed with the Soweto grooves of South Africa.

For the last few songs, Mahal unexpectedly picked up a banjo, mimicking the surprise of the audience: “Brother done pulled out a banjo! Lord have mercy! What he gonna do with it? Whatever it is, I’m outta here!” Just to drive the point home, he teased with a lick from “Dueling Banjos,” then launched into a feverish zydeco breakdown.

“Now we got that outta the way,” Mahal said, “we’re gonna play some blues with it.” He then proceeded into a burning urban blues in C, still on the banjo.


ON MONDAY, OCT. 6, AT 12:44 P.M.

Anat Cohen

National Museum of Women in the Arts

Anat Cohen is the most visible member of a certain group of Israeli jazz musicians in New York: In addition to her instrumental work, she’s a prolific composer and owner of her own label, Anzic. So while it wasn’t surprising that she would be a formidable presence at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, few concertgoers probably expected to end up awestruck.

The concert featured Cohen’s quartet (pianist Jason Lindner, bassist Joe Martin, drummer Daniel Freedman) performing songs from her just-released Notes from the Village album. Alternating between her two axes, Cohen portrayed her different styles on each: The clarinet on Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” was gleeful, relaxed, and rhythmically agile but always had a hint of gravitas; on tenor sax (“J Blues”) she exerted lots of muscle but was more intent on a strident, conversational sound. The band, particularly Lindner (whose Live at the Jazz Gallery was by far the best big-band album of 2007), didn’t fail her. Lindner veered from dreamy cascades on “Jitterbug Waltz” to sharp but wistful blues on “Until You’re In Love Again,” and he even plucked the strings in a good impression of African mbira on “Washington Square Park.”

The extraordinary moment, however, came on the final song, the Cuban standard “Siboney,” when Cohen invited DEJF musical director Paquito d’Rivera to join her onstage. Together they launched into a duet that became more of a mighty showdown: He played light, sprightly, and high; she played mid-range, somewhat slower, and always with that somber edge. Their playing was a tangled network of calls and responses, thrusts and parries, harmonies, unisons, counterpoints, and even a few setups and punch lines.

“Well,” said the MC after the performance ended. “That was sort of unforgettable.” He was putting it mildly.


ON Saturday, OCT. 4, AT 12:56 P.M.

Yardena/Monty Alexander

7:30 P.M., Jewish Community Center

For better or worse, it was an intimate evening at the D.C. Jewish Community Center’s Goldman Theater—fewer than 20 people in attendance. “Isn’t it terrible? I’m competing with Sarah Palin!” chanteuse Yardena lamented with a grin. Indeed, it was so uncrowded that the profanity from the tech booth echoed through the room. (“I was good with this shit, man! What the fuck?!”)

Yardena killed anyway. She drew from her unique repertoire: 500-year-old Sephardic folk songs with Latin-jazz arrangements. Her clear, steady alto and impeccable rhythmic phrasing alone built a compelling performance, but Yardena’s onstage charisma is something else again. It’s difficult to describe: sultry and magnetic but in a sophisticated, mature sense. On “Noches, Noches” and “La Vezina Catina,” she pulled off melodrama without exaggeration—a skill so difficult, it never occurred to me that it even existed.

Her sextet was (mostly) aces: Bassist Pedro Girando played with great sensitivity; trumpeter Jonathan Powell’s lovely, flamenco-like solos had a languid, liquid tone (particularly on the torch-ish “Adio”); and Tony De Vivo’s and Neil Ochoa’s percussion had a canny grasp of both subtlety and power. The weak link was pianist Pablo Vergara, whom Yardena called “my favorite.” Though he had great chops, he was a bit to anxious to show them off and did so without regard to taste or propriety. Speedy harmonic whirlwinds are great…but in the middle of the sad love song “Yo Me’namori D’un Aire”? It doesn’t play.

10 P.M., Blues Alley

Monty Alexander is an underappreciated pianist: He has a heavy, percussive touch, a love of thick chords, and a vast rhythmic sense encompassing swing, funk, and the Caribbean islands. (Alexander is Jamaican.) But last Friday at Blues Alley he was practically a sideman in his own trio.

His drummer was Herlin Riley, a New Orleans native and alumnus of Wynton Marsalis’ bands. And on the Georgetown bandstand, he was a star. On the first song (which Alexander didn’t name), Riley drove the trio (also featuring Hassan Shakur on bass) through a stormy swing that soon dissipated into firm reggae and back again with crisp, precise sound. Then he let loose with a thunderous flood of drums. It was a performance that Miles Davis would’ve called “a bad motherfucker.”

It didn’t stop there. On “Hope,” he shivered the cymbals on the minor-key melody, then tattooed the funk break with bass-drum heartbeats. “No Woman, No Cry” got a soft march; by the closing number, an unnamed blues, Riley was doing tricks to great applause, twirling one stick on the offbeats and never missing the ons.

Not to take away from Alexander, mind you—he played beautifully, in particular a winning rendition of Tony Bennett’s “Good Life.” Shakur was a monster, too, dueling with the others on grooves of his own design and laying down nice solos on the opener and on “No Woman, No Cry.” But Riley had the crowd in his hands; it was his night, and everybody knew it.


ON Friday, OCT. 3, AT 12:32 P.M.