- The Washington Times - Monday, July 17, 2006

By all accounts, Duke Ellington was a private, suavely reserved man.

“Ellington: The Life and Music of The Duke” never sheds light on Mr. Ellington’s inner thoughts or personal compulsions, but it is a tuneful and elegant tribute to the jazz great nonetheless.

The jewel in MetroStage’s modest production is the jazz quartet, as tight and swinging as something out of Harlem in its heyday. William Knowles provides impeccable piano accompaniment and directs a choice group of area jazz musicians — Yusef Chisholm on bass, Gregory Holloway on drums, and Ron Oshima on sax. The quartet’s smart, velvety interpretations of Mr. Ellington’s classics will have you scanning the playbill in anticipation of another instrumental number as fine as “Azure,” “The Mooche,” or “In a Sentimental Mood.”

Jimi Ray Malary plays The Duke and serves as the show’s narrator, maintaining an easygoing charm even when David Scully’s script requires him to rattle off nursery-rhyming dialogue that’s more Blue’s Clues than Blues Alley. Mr. Malary rises above such palaver as “Duke asked Lady Jazz to dance” and “In 1974, lung cancer knocks on Duke’s door” to deliver a sophisticated performance redolent of nightclubs and after-hour joints.

As a classically trained baritone, Mr. Malary may be better suited for the opera stage than a jazz cabaret — his lower registers were particularly wobbly and wispy, and there was a trace of the schmoozy wedding singer in many of the slower ballads. However, he did display pleasing musical chops on the uptempo tunes, “Hit Me With a Hot Note and Watch Me Bounce,” “Rocks in My Bed,” and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” Mr. Malary also gained control and restraint in the second act, culminating in an affecting rendition of arranger Billy Strayhorn’s rueful masterpiece, “Lush Life.”

The band was consistently top drawer, bringing a feathery touch to “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” a swaying samba beat to “Satin Doll,” and bluesy backbone to “Rocks in My Bed.” Mr. Knowles and his fellow musicians know how to make Mr. Ellington’s notes swing in a way that’s not merely big-band nostalgia, but hot and eternally cool.

***

WHAT: “Ellington: The Life and Music of the Duke,” by David Scully

WHERE: MetroStage, 1201 North Royal St., Alexandria

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays; 3 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Aug. 6.

TICKETS: $35

PHONE: 703/548-9044

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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