One of the best kept secrets of the American Dance Festival is the annual musicians’ concert, a tribute to those who play and support a cast of dancers from around the globe. Featuring an eclectic mix of classic jazz, new age, traditional and Afro-Cuban pop, with guest artists Vladimir Espinosa and Khalid Abdul N’Faly Saleem and coupled with a bit of drama and vocal antics of Claudia Howard Queen and Shodekeh, ADF musicians rocked Duke University’s Baldwin Auditorium.

Master of ceremonies and Director of Musicians for ADF, Natalie Gilbert invited the audience to sing a round set to Robert Frost’s text, “I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep,” from his poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” After this lovely prelude Gilbert began the program with tribute to Mariah Maloney and her commission with the same title, the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 13, “Pathetique.”

Next, in keeping with the improvisatory quality of modern dance, three piano jazz pieces were presented. Ella Fitzgerald’s signature piece, “How High the Moon,” by Nancy Hamilton and Morgan Lewis was performed by Michael Wall (piano) and choreographer David Dorfman (accordion). Played with the warmth and sentimentality intended, I pictured the diva smiling in response. This was followed by “Piano Solo,” composer Doug Corbin’s tip of the hat to Gershwin with a splash of vernacular boogey woogey. Then Jefferson Dolby played his composition, “My Dreams of Her Now” (1978), with the tenderness of Bill Evans.

On the light side, the Boogey Men (Ken Ray Wilemon and Jefferson Dalby) drew from the palettes of Henry Mancini and Jerry Lee Lewis in a whimsical medley entitled “Two Fell Swoop,” “Racing against Paw-Paws (the cat),” “Tongs to Come,” and “Gone with the Wind.”

“Bollywood,” performed by Claudia Howard Queen on a sitar disguised as mandolin player, and tabla player John Hanks, on drum kit, demonstrated undiscovered vocal talent of the resident composer. Queen’s “Welsh Hills Carol,” inspired during a residency in Ohio, calls up pastoral images quite nicely. 

Using a looping device and vocalization, Shodekeh wowed the audience with his fast-paced vocal artistry which he calls “beat box and vocal percussion.” Shodekeh is a hip-hop Foley artist with a dash of Bobby McFerrin. Add a bit of Laurie Anderson and you get the idea. Vladimir Espinosa joined Shodekeh with a fascinating and successful duo with didgeridoo (traditional aerophone) and electronics.

What really got this dance crowd going, however, was the high energy and rhythmic drive of the Afro-Cuban works. Khalid Abdul N’Faly Saleem’s arrangement of traditional Denbaya stirred the audience with an invitation to “Get up and get down.” With call and response clapping and colorful performance, this group worked the audience like magic!  And the finale, “Comparsa” arranged by Vladimir Espinosa and performed with Stafford Berry, Beverly Botsford, Patrick Loebs and friends, enticed dancers into action. Rising to their feet, young and old followed Espinosa through the aisles and across the stage. It was an invitation to dance the night away!