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September 13, 2008

Jessye Norman sings Ellington at UM

Jessye NormanThe prospect of hearing Jessye Norman, the sensationally gifted soprano, sing the music of jazz great Duke Ellington Friday night at the Clarice Smith Center was too enticing to pass up. The concert produced some really magical moments, along with others that were, well, deliciously awful. Norman, who turns 63 on Monday, came to attention nearly four decades ago with the unusually wide range and sheer richness of her voice. Judging by Friday's results, a lot of that quality still shines. (Most of the time, Norman used mild amplification, but she also moved the mike away now and then, and there was still plenty of vocal presence unaided.)

I've never been able to warm up to Ellington's religious music; it always seems just a few degrees shy of the melodic inspiration that makes his jazz tunes so indelible. Norman devoted the first half of the concert to items from the sacred repertoire of Ellington, and certainly delivered plenty of expressive commitment, as did her top-notch instrumental quartet: pianist Mark Markham, saxophinist Bill Easley, bassist Ira Coleman, drummer Lewis Nash. But things got really interesting after the long, long intermission ...

when the focus shifted to such standards as "Sophisticated Lady," spun out most eloquently by Norman, with Coleman providing suave support. The singer's account of "In My Solitude" was another standout, wonderfully intimate and affecting. But more upbeat numbers didn't mean a thing, 'cause she just didn't have that swing. And a few attempts at scat singing were ill-advised. Even more ill-advised was the choice of a non-Ellington encore, "When the Saints Go Marching In" -- Norman should never have wanted to be in that number. Still, for all of the strange or mannered bits along the way, the whole concert, capped by a plaintive version of Gershwin's "Summertime," was a fascinating experience.   
Posted by Tim Smith at 5:13 PM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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