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Hank Jones’ tones can light up a room. The 89-year-old from Pontiac, Michigan, is the elder statesman of jazz piano, if not of all of jazz, and has worked with everyone from Charlie Parker and Miles Davisto Jack DeJohnette and Joe Lovano.
Meanwhile, Roberta Gambarini is a relative newcomer on the jazz scene. A native of Turin, Italy, the beautiful singer released her first album in 2006 after almost a decade of gigging in New York. She’s a tremendously respected vocalist—enough so that Jones has recorded a duo album, You Are There, with her. (It’s already been released in Europe, although there’s no U.S. street date yet.) Thursday night, the two showed Washington what they could do together in concert at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Jones, who accompanied Ella Fitzgerald for six years, has called Gambarini “the first person to come along who approaches Ella.” The statement seems vague until Gambarini begins to perform. She shares with Fitzgerald a mastery of of every technical facet of singing: dynamics, range, breathing, scatting, and impeccable rhythm. But she also has an uncanny sense of timing that really sells the lyrics; Gambarini knows that a nanosecond pause between words can give her all the credibility in the world (which it did, especially on Johnny Mandel‘s “You Are There”). She also has a quality to her voice that’s both sweet and sexy, although it might even be too seductive: Her treatment of Duke Ellington‘s gospel hymn “Come Sunday” sounded like an attempt to seduce God Himself. But her work overall was nonpareil.
The best thing about Gambarini’s flawless technique was that it needed so little support from Jones that he was able to work whatever magic he wanted. On upbeat songs he liked jaunty swing with a touch of Fats Waller-derived stride piano in his left hand. On ballads, though, he preferred sparse comping: establishing chords and fragile high-note figures with plenty of space between them that spoke as much as the beautiful notes. His masterstroke was on his own composition, “Peedlum,” a happy midtempo blues. Jones played with lots of swing, of course, but threw in boogie-woogie licks, Ellingtonian phrases, and gorgeous little flourishes that added up to a marvelously understated elegance.
The evening was an extraordinary event, but Jones, the winner of the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award this year (with Clark Terry) isn’t finished. He’ll be onstage Saturday night at the NEA Jazz Master’s Concert at the Lincoln Theater. Don’t miss it.