In concert: Mary Lou Williams Women In Jazz Festival at The Kenendy Center
By Mike Joyce
"Let's get this birthday party started, shall we," suggested vocalist and host Dee Dee Bridgewater at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Thursday when the Mary Lou Williams Women In Jazz Festival opened a three night stand. But before the concert was over, the capacity crowd could be forgiven for losing track of the milestone celebrations.
While the Williams Centennial inspired most of the evening's performances, the groundbreaking festival also marked its 15th anniversary. And near the end of the concert, Bridgewater herself was clearly surprised and touched by the arrival of a candlelit cake saluting her 60th birthday. Though she didn't quite manage to extinguish all the flames with one breath, she lacked neither lungpower nor harmonic ingenuity while freely improvising - and sometimes vigorously sparring - with members of an all-star ensemble featuring pianist Geri Allen, bassist Esperanza Spalding, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and alto saxophonist Grace Kelly.
The concert was front-loaded with pieces written by Williams, the trailblazing jazz pianist, composer and arranger. The all-star group may have been leaderless in theory, but pianist Allen was a guiding force. Using an emphatic left hand to create idiomatic rhythms and funky syncopations, she helped power the rhythm section through highly interactive arrangements based on pieces drawn from Williams' expansive repertoire, including "Miss D.D" and "Pisces."
There were more than a few moments, though, when Allen's orchestral designs, sublime examples of keyboard coloring and dynamics, allowed the ensemble to display winning finesse amid improvised tangents, heated exchanges and terrifically vibrant collaborations with Bridgewater. Animated and playful as ever, Bridgewater also revealed her sheer soulfulness while performing the haunting (and sadly neglected) Williams ballad "Ghost Of Love."
The all-stars played another set later in the evening, with and without the inexhaustible Bridgewater, following a performance by the Carmen Staaf Trio. Winner of the festival's piano competition last year, Staaf could have earned a small slot on the program on the strength of her technique alone. What stood out, though, were her compositions, particularly the fanciful "Merry Go Round," and her trio's fresh interpretation of Denzil Best's "45 Degree Angle," a Williams favorite.
Afro Blue, the gifted Howard University vocal ensemble, opened the evening with a harmonious, spirituals-to-bop excerpt from Williams' "Mass," which will be performed in its entirety when the festival draws to a close Saturday night.
May 21, 2010; 1:00 PM ET
Categories: In concert | Tags: Dee Dee Bridgewater, Esperanza Spalding, Geri Allen, Grace Kelly, Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival, Terri Lynne Carrington
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