It is a rare treat to hear two powerhouse artists in a single show, but the double bill from Mack Avenue Records in Washington, DC's Blues Alley on July 27 delivered deluxe. The acts - French-American vocalist Ilona Knopfler and trad bandleader and trumpet player Sean Jones - are separate artists both promoting their second CDs on Mack Avenue. Both are now getting overdue attention as startling and talented finds. It says something for them that both of these very different acts were able to greatly please the same audience. Knopfler's lovely singing was followed by the amazing creativity and style of Jones and his band.
Knopfler came on first, performing several numbers from her new CD, "Live the Life." Although some of the CD tracks had orchestrations, Knopfler was backed here by the skilled Steve Rudolph Trio of bass, drums, and piano, everything worked fine. Her voice more than lived up to the CD, with flawless pitching, smooth emoting and a winning confidence. It was her first time at the famed venue in DC's Georgetown, but Knopfler is an experienced performer and seemed nerveless.
She opened with the swingy "Comment Allez-Vous," one of the tunes in which she bounces between French and English phrases, and followed up with the samba "But for Now." Perhaps the most charming moment of the evening came when Knopfler brought her 5-year-old daughter on stage to chirp her "pourquoi? pourquoi?" contribution to "Parce Que," as she does on the album.
After an excellent set of seven vocal numbers that went by too fast, Knopfler made way for the Sean Jones band, which featured cuts from the current release, "Gemini." While the reference is to his astrological sun sign and the constellation of Castor and Pollox, "Gemini" also symbolizes the different aspects of life and Jones's approach to it. This diversity is what seems to fascinate people about him. Jones travels on his trumpet from a full blow, complete with Dizzy Gillespie-like cheeks, to the quietest, gentlest sounds that hardly seem able to come from a trumpet. Jones's playing is incredibly subtle and nuanced. He takes his time and doesn't rush.
And yet, for all that, the band - and the music - is about far more than Jones's superb trumpet playing. Tia Fuller on sax and flute displayed equally impressive work, with a expert playing style and ability. The band assembled for this show also included Philadelphia's Orrin Evans on piano, Kenny Davis from Chicago on bass (both electric and stand-up) and Denver's Rudy Royston on the drums. All turned in excellent work on this evening.
The set's top highlights were two of Jones's own compositions. The first, "BJ's Tune (Life in the Hand Divine)," was inspired by the birth of his nephew, Benjamin Jacob, who was born while Jones was on the road working with Harry Connick, Jr. The deep emotion and spirituality Jones told the audience he felt at that time comes through in the music. Jones was also inspired by the TV show "Crocodile Hunter," which brought on a playful duel among the musicians, simulating the struggle between a crocodile and a snake. The audience enjoyed the imagery the band created, but of course the illusion was built on top-notch instrumentation.
Thank goodness all this happened at Blues Alley, a serious small room with candlelit tables, each with a table card that reminds you it is a "listening" venue. The audience listened and appreciated. It was an outstanding evening of excellent entertainment. We will certainly be hearing much more from both Ilona Knopfler and Sean Jones in the years ahead.