- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2003

Award-winning swing guitarist Duke Robillard comes to The Barns at Wolf Trap tonight with his pals of the New Guitar Summit, Jay Geils and Gerry Beaudoin, for a history lesson in American roots music.

"In today's music there is not an awful lot happening that is interesting, creating a renewed interest in early American roots music swing, jazz and rhythm and blues, which can mean anything from hip hop to Louis Jordan," says Mr. Robillard from his Rhode Island home studio.

"However, as far as the general public, I think they are far from understanding the value of the music this country produced from the '20s to the '60s, before it became corporate."

While the Summit's gentlemen have long music histories, they also have a long history together. The J. Geils Band began playing blues music in New England in the late 1960s, at the same time as Mr. Robillard's Roomful of Blues of which Gerry Beaudoin was a fan.

That appreciation led to Mr. Beaudoin's later joining Mr. Robillard and Mr. Geils to form the New Guitar Summit.

The New Guitar Summit recharges the efforts of some of jazz's greatest guitarists among them a rotating group of maestros such as Herb Ellis, Charlie Byrd and Barney Kessel. They would perform, most often in an extremely free-form manner, in groups of three, billing themselves at The Great Guitarists.

The New Guitar Summit takes to the road backed by John Turner on upright bass and Gordon Grottenthaler on drums. The full rhythm section allows the three front men, who have more than 100 years of combined guitar experience that has crossed numerous idioms and styles, to perform Benny Goodman-style orchestrated tunes, swing-era tunes and jazz-oriented blues.

"The New Guitar Summit is the three of us, and the concept is a vehicle to play the early jazz guitar that we all appreciate," Mr. Robillard says. "It's funny, but Jay has secretly been a jazz player all his life. In fact, he first learned to play trumpet before picking up the guitar. Anyway, we are all big fans of the early decades of music in America."

Mr. Robillard, now 54, says his fascination with this music dates back to his youth, when he would sneak into his older brother's room to play his guitar.

As a young man he sat and watched Duke Ellington and other early 20th century musical greats.

His 1960s-era blues band, Roomful of Blues, linked jazz, swing and the blues, and opened for Count Basie on numerous occasions.

"I decided when I was 6 that this was what I was going to do, and I have never done anything else. The first song I learned was probably 'Honky Tonk,' " Mr. Robillard says, alluding to the instrumental R&B tune Bill Doggett made famous in 1956.

"This music was born a generation or two before me and I have been listening to it all of my life. I have been fortunate enough to see some of the original musicians, such as Duke Ellington, who began playing in the 1920s. And that is something very few people can say today."

Mr. Robillard also tours with the Duke Robillard Band (www.dukerobillard.com), which will appear at the upcoming Western Maryland Blues Festival in Hagerstown on March 31.

His most recent release, "Duke Robillard: Living with the Blues," is considered by many his greatest blues album. In an album to be released in April, "More Conversations in Swing Guitar," he follows up on "Conversations in Swing Guitar," his 1999 instrumental collaboration with guitar great Herb Ellis.

•••

Monday brings Better Than Ezra to the District's 9:30 Club. Comprised of singer/guitarist Kevin Griffin, bassist Tom Drummond and drummer Travis McNabb, the band is considered one of the great indie success stories. The band sold more than 30,000 copies of its first labeled album, "Deluxe," thanks to non-stop touring and the on-air popularity of its first single, "Good."

Shelved by Elektra Records after disappointing sales of its third album, "How Does Your Garden Grow" (1998), Better Than Ezra remains a classic, post-grunge, pop-rock trio.

The band released its fourth album, "Closer," in 2001 after going back to an indie label (Beyond Music). The album's love-struck-yet-hopeful pop melodies help to showcase the band's earthy, bittersweet lyrics and singer Kevin Griffin's forever youthful vocals.

Better Than Ezra continues to tour, keeping to the smaller, more intimate clubs that allow this quintessential, post-1990s guitar garage band to interact, and party with their fans, known as "Ezralites."

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