- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 22, 2003

Experience counts, and it’s coming to town. Three of the week’s most exciting acts are among the most seasoned performers around.

Check out Roomful of Blues, for example, celebrating its 35th year on the road. It hits Sweet Caroline’s in Winchester, Va., tonight, the State Theatre in Falls Church tomorrow, the 1776 Steakhouse in Rehoboth Beach, Del., on Saturday, and the Ram’s Head in Annapolis on Sunday.

“We still enjoy doing it and doing the music,” says Roomful of Blues lead guitarist Chris Vachon. “It’s not because we’re doing it for a living per se. We just feel as though it’s important to keep it alive.”

What Roomful of Blues does, and does better than just about anybody else, is play energizing, horn-driven, powerhouse blues. It’s a blues style that has sometimes been called “jump” or “swing,” and it certainly does.

One of the secrets to the band’s longevity is having great musicians. Including the current eight-man contingent. Fifty players have been in Roomful of Blues during its 35-year existence. Duke Robillard, Ronnie Earl, Ron Levy, Al Copley and Sugar Ray Norcia are just some of the talented musicians who have spent time in the band. The current group has three long-time veterans: Mr. Vachon (13 years), trumpeter Bob Enos (23) and saxophonist Rich Lataille (32). The lead singer joined the band last year, and so did the drummer, bass player, keyboard player and another saxophonist.

“This is the best lineup that I can remember,” Mr. Vachon says. “Everybody’s on the same page with the music. Everybody’s putting a lot of energy into it and has high hopes for more recordings.”

In March, the band released the 17th Roomful of Blues album, “That’s Right,” distributed by Alligator Records. It has received several rave reviews.

Next there’s trombonist Steve Turre who has also been at it for 35 years. Tonight and tomorrow night he presents his homage to jazz giant J.J. Johnson at the Kennedy Center.

Mr. Turre can sum up his feelings about Mr. Johnson in two sentences: “J.J. did for the trombone what Charlie Parker did for the saxophone,” says Mr. Turre. “He set the level, the standard, which nobody has topped yet, and the standard by which all others are measured in terms of mastery.”

Mr. Johnson, who passed away in February 2001, was also considered an innovative composer, arranger and band leader.

For Mr. Turre, Mr. Johnson was also a close friend and a mentor. In his performance, entitled “One4J: Paying Homage to J.J. Johnson,” Mr. Turre’s quartet along with guest trombonist Robin Eubanks will play their own arrangements of some of Mr. Johnson’s wonderful compositions, including the classics “Lament” and “Kelo.”

“It’s not just a show about the trombone, and that school of trombone, but also the fact that he was such a magnificent composer,” says Mr. Turre. “And that his compositions still sound great today.”

Mr. Turre’s judgment of Mr. Johnson is based on a wealth of experience. The list of musicians Mr. Turre has played or recorded with reads like the Jazz Hall of Fame: everyone from Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Ray Charles and Lester Bowie to Art Blakey, Woody Shaw and Dizzy Gillespie. Mr. Turre is an innovative player and arranger himself. Considered by many as the finest trombonist of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Mr. Turre also introduced the conch shell to jazz.

Last but not least, it has been more than 40 years since Etta James got her first professional singing job. On Wednesday at the Warner Theatre, she’ll show everyone that she still has what it takes.

“Over the years, I’ve done jazz and blues and pop — all kinds of things — but I’ve always considered myself a rock ‘n’ roll singer,” says Miss James on her Web site, www.etta-james.com. With a 40-year career that spans almost the whole rock ‘n’ roll era, Miss James has influenced countless performers from Diana Ross to Janis Joplin to Bonnie Raitt and beyond.

Miss James had her first No. 1 R&B; hit, “Roll With Me, Henry” in 1954, when she was only 14. In the 1960s, she charted 28 hits — a dozen of them making the top 10. There have been ups and downs in terms of popularity, but Miss James has never stopped singing. She’s recorded almost 50 albums and received numerous Grammy Award nominations and several Grammy Awards, including one for lifetime achievement. She’s also been elected to both the Rock ‘n’ Roll and the Blues halls of fame.

Part of what keeps fans coming back to Miss James’ records and performances is her reputation for being a sassy, no-holds-barred performer. If her most recent albums — the live “Burning Down the House” (2002) and this year’s studio recording “Let’s Roll” — are any indication, the energy and power of her singing has not diminished with time.

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