- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Certain things in music are timeless. They are just as moving, touching or uplifting today as they were the first the day they were heard.

In the Washington area this week, the marvelous voice of a folk singer and the joyous sound of a Dixieland jazz band fit the definition perfectly.

Judy Collins returns to Wolf Trap on Saturday with the latest version of her Wildflower Festival tour.

“This is a way to have some fun,” Miss Collins says when asked why she created the Wildflower Festival.

“Have other people on the road with me, to expose my audience to a combination of music that should be interesting and different, and to have a good time.”

This year, Miss Collins is sharing her stage with three very talented and very different members of the folk fraternity.

Rita Coolidge’s strong, sultry voice and her long black Indian braids left a lasting mark on the 1970s folk-rock and country-rock scene. Her duets with then-husband Kris Kristofferson had a special chemistry and won the pair two Grammy awards. She also charted solo songs including “(Your Love Keeps Lifting) Higher and Higher.”

Miss Collins describes contemporary folk singer and songwriter Suzanne Vega as a “wonderful, intelligent songwriter.” Miss Vega’s hit “Luka” opened the door to radio success for singer-songwriters in the 1980s.

The quintessential studio musician, Eric Weissberg has backed seemingly everyone, including Miss Collins, Bob Dylan, the Talking Heads and Herbie Mann. He had a fluke hit in “Dueling Banjos” from the 1972 movie “Deliverance.”

Even with all this talent around her, the focus will certainly be on Miss Collins. It’s been 40 years since she released her first solo album, and audiences were captured by her wonderful voice and her skill at interpreting songs and making them special. Her renditions of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” are true timeless classics.

Although Miss Collins is not usually thought of as a songwriter, in the latter half of her career, she has written several powerful songs. Quite often, her songwriting is driven by events, such as the suicide of her son in 1992, warfare in Sarajevo and September 11.

“What I’m looking to do is to paint a large canvas with the song,” Miss Collins says. “Often, an image will prompt me, a very specific detail, in the case of the firemen.”

The image this time was a tattoo, “343,” on the neck of a New York City fireman — for the number of New York City firefighters who died at ground zero on September 11. His sense of commitment and family really got to her.

“And it stayed with me in a way that prompted me to sit down finally and write the story out,” Miss Collins says.

The result is one of the most powerful and touching songs about September 11. Combine it with Miss Collins’ voice, and audiences are mesmerized, almost brought to tears. Only her version of “Amazing Grace” may have more ability to capture the heart of the audience.

• • •

There is something infectious about traditional and Dixieland jazz. It sends shivers down the spine and electricity to the toes.

To Marty Frankel, cornetist and current leader of the Federal Jazz Commission (playing tonight at the State Theatre in Falls Church), the reason is simple.

“The fact is it does have a melody and it does have a beat, and I think it all boils down that,” Mr. Frankel says. “The music, whether you’re playing a slow blues or an up-tempo piece, it’s usually joyous.”

Mr. Frankel should know. He’s been playing with the Federal Jazz Commission for 26 years, only two years shorter than the band’s life. The current sextet of Mr. Frankel, Henning Hoehne (clarinet and saxophones), Steve Welch (trombone), Donn Andre (banjo), Tom Gray (bass) and Sonny McGown (drums) has been together a bit more than eight years, and there are no plans to stop.

If they stopped, who would play Tuesday nights at Colonel Brooks’ Tavern in Northeast? Tuesday night at the tavern has been a regular gig for the Federal Jazz Commission since 1981.

Somehow, it all stays fresh and fun. For Mr. Frankel, the reason is improvisation.

“It never comes out quite the same, the ambience of the room and the audience and the way you feel. It’s the interplay among the instruments as you go along,” he says.

“The longer you work together, of course, the more fun it becomes, because then you pretty much have a feeling for what the guy’s going to do even if he never did it before.”

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