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The Third Annual Duke Ellington Jazz Festival formally opened last night with a gala concert at the Inter-American Development Bank. Emceed by WJLA’s Leon Harris, it included short sets by three acts.

Native Washingtonian Davey Yarborough is a premier jazz educator: he’s a founder of the Washington Jazz Arts Institute, the Ellington School’s Jazz Studies program, and the Smithsonian’s Jazz Evenings for Young Professionals lecture series. He’s also an accomplished saxophonist, as shown in the straight-ahead New Washingtonians quintet. Concentrating on tenor for the three-song set, his fluid, ornate sound was best demonstrated in a thrilling bebop version of Ellington’s “Cottontail.” Yarborough channeled original soloist Ben Webster while tearing up the stage in his own improv.

The quintet’s other highlight was pianist John Ozment, who’s also an educator (he’s a professor at the University of Maryland). Though he used more flourish in the one ballad, Ozment played economically and rhythmically on the upbeat tunes, and displayed his absorption of piano tradition when he broke into a rollicking ’30s swing on “Cottontail.”

Yarborough didn’t talk much to the audience, but clarinet and alto-sax legend Paquito D’Rivera was full of entertaining banter. The festival’s artistic director presented a trio of himself, pianist Alex Brown, and cellist Dana Leong. He was funny: Introducing his “Fiddle Dreams,” D’Rivera explained that it was commissioned by the Library of Congress for jazz violin and piano, “but I’m playing it on clarinet because my violin is in the pawn shop.” The set was comprised of jaunty, bustling Latin jazz in various rhythms, including a rumba arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia.” (“Celebrating Dizzy” is the 2007 Festival’s theme, as this would have been the seminal trumpeter’s 90th year.)

While every musician was more than talented, I caught two who were phenomenally brilliant. One was D’Rivera’s 20-year-old pianist, Alex Brown, already a seasoned veteran who’s taught master classes at the University of Panama. D’Rivera noted that Brown had first seen the group’s confounding arrangements two days before, and mastered them all. Festival organizer Charles Fishman indicated that Brown has two more performances during the festival, accompanying Oscar Feldman at Bohemian Caverns Friday night and leading his own trio at Johnny’s Half Shell Saturday. See one of them: This kid’s got more talent than anyone has a right to.

The other prodigy was headliner Nnenna Freelon. Experiencing her is unique, and difficult to describe. Whereas Yarborough reached out with his music and D’Rivera worked the crowd with his wit, Freelon had us in the palm of her hand the instant she stepped onstage. Frankly, she looked a little crazy: hair slightly tousled, smile and gaze intense, and loose leopard-print dress continually falling off both shoulders. Nonetheless, she had a presense for which the word “regal” is inadequate; no royalty ever had such hypnotic command. Freelon was more like a high priestess.

Her voice, simultaneously clear and sandy, cast a spell through five songs, offering pathos and impeccably tasteful scatting. The concert’s highlight had D’Rivera joining her for Gillespie’s “Birk’s Works,” his clarinet accenting her (somehow) romantic scat with the only genuinely bluesy solo of the night. Also memorable was her intimate performance of “Stella by Starlight,” accompanied only by pianist Brandon McHugh. “This song has become an old friend,” Freelon said in introducing it, then evidenced that statement with the sensitivity of her vocal.

Charlie Fishman’s goal with the festival, besides celebrating Ellington’s legacy, is to elevate D.C. to a world-class jazz outpost. If last night’s gala is any indication, Fishman is damn close to that achieving that goal.