(Note: Yes, I did have a camera with me last night. But the batteries were dead. I’ll do better tonight.)

For better or worse, it was an intimate evening at the Goldman Theater – less 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 more sophisticated, mature sense than those words might suggest. The key lay in her control: 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 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.


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 night 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 by what Miles Davis would call “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 “No Woman, No Cry.” But Riley had the crowd in his hands; it was his night and everybody knew it.

The Monty Alexander Trio will play two shows nightly (8 and 10 pm) to October 5 at Blues Alley, 1073 Wisconsin Ave. NW. Tickets are $27.50