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Washington’s Duke Ellington Jazz Festival kicks off each year with a private gala and concert for the sponsors and friends of the festival. Last night’s, held at the Inter-American Development Bank, was one act, scaled back from last year’s triple-bill spectacular. But its size was more than made up for by the quality of its performers: clarinetist Paquito d’Rivera (the festival’s musical director) and the Turtle Island String Quartet.

Though they’ve got the standard classical lineup—two violins, viola, and cello—the “Turtles” concentrate on more diverse, contemporary genres, primarily jazz. They began the concert with tunes from their Grammy-winning A Love Supreme: The Legacy of John Coltrane — starting with a sublime take on Coltrane‘s “Moment’s Notice” and capped off with a beautifully dissonant reading of Stanley Clarke‘s “Song to John” (with a lovely violin solo from Mads Tolling). Despite the repertoire, this prologue had a conservatory-like seriousness about it.

Of course, that was all over the moment Paquito d’Rivera joined them onstage. Festival chair Charlie Fishman had noted in his introduction that he called d’Rivera “the Latin Dizzy Gillespie” for his clownish personality, and he played it to the hilt: “We started out as the Turtle Island Symphony Orchestra,” he told the audience after his first number. “This is what the Immigration Department has left us.”

Their set together was short, but magnificent. Highlights included a swooping arrangement of Frank Sinatra‘s setpiece “Angel Eyes”; “Wapango,” a piece Rivera wrote for the Quartet, here featuring a ukulele-like pizzicato break on Tolling’s violin; and a fun Gillespie tribute that centered on “A Night in Tunisia,” but had d’Rivera frequently inserting a riff from Dizzy’s bebop classic “Salt Peanuts” and demanding the audience give the vocal response. The performance set an incredibly high bar for the rest of the festival.

Fortunately, there are other opportunities to see Rivera perform this week. He’ll be sitting in with the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the NEA Jazz Masters concert at the Lincoln Theater Saturday night, and with Conrad Herwig‘s orchestra at the National Mall’s free concert on Sunday. (Full festival schedule is here.)