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In concert: Mary Lou Williams Women In Jazz Festival at The Kenendy Center

mary lou williamsPart of the All-Star Quintet - left to right, Geri Allen, Esperanza Spalding, Grace Kelly and Terri Lyne Carrington - performs on the opening night of the Kennedy Center's 2010 Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival. (All photos by Brandon Wu/FTWP)

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.

mary lou williamsDrummer Terri Lyne Carrington performs with the All-Star Quintet on the opening night of the Kennedy Center's 2010 Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival.

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.

mary lou williamsSaxophonist Grace Kelly and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington perform with the All-Star Quintet.

mary lou williamsVocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater performs with the All-Star Quintet.

mary lou williamsPianist Geri Allen performs with the All-Star Quintet.

mary lou williamsBassist Esperanza Spalding performs with the All-Star Quintet.

mary lou williamsVocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater and pianist Geri Allen perform with the All-Star Quintet.

mary lou williamsPianist Carmen Staaf performs with her trio.

By David Malitz  |  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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I enjoyed Mike Joyce's review of the first evening of the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival. I was disappointed, however that the Post failed to cover, either in print or in your blog, Saturday evening's performance of Mary Lou Williams' Mass. It was the fesitval's supurb closure with Geri Allen, Carmen Lundy and Howard University's Afro Blue.

Geri Allen, a Howard Alum, had been given, earlier that evening, the 2010 Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Award. Howard's Afro Blue, under the direction of Connaitre Miller, had been named DownBeat Magazine's Best Vocal Jazz Ensemble. Without going into the quality of the performamce, which I thought stunning, I write to say that, in failing to cover such you miss a fine local story. Concerts, like this one, sell out and do not need attention for ticket sales. However, they have a following throughout the region that, I am sure, would appreciated a good review.

Posted by: jls32340 | May 26, 2010 4:10 PM | Report abuse

I completely agree with jls above. The Mass to me was the highlight of the weekend, and should have been spotlighted and recognized for the breathtaking body of work that it is. Especially during Mary Lou Williams Centennial celebration, the Mass stands out as one of her signature works and certainly deserves print and press coverage and recognition.

Afro Blue is indeed an award winning ensemble, and their performance, led by the superb direction of Connaitre Miller, was absolutely stunning, heartfelt and soulful. Howard University, a D.C. institution in every sense, deserves praise from its own local press.

Not to mention that the evening also belonged to Geri Allen, the 2010 recipient of the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Award! Such an honor is not given lightly, and the closing night's ceremony and celebration of this pianist's unique and singular talent should not go unnoticed.

Finally, but not least, was the breathtaking vocal performance of Carmen Lundy. Lundy has proven herself to be the definitive voice of Mary Lou Williams. I've seen her perform the Mass in Los Angeles (at the prestigious Disney Hall), and her performance on Saturday surpassed even that unforgettable evening. What a shame that this electrifying performance by Lundy, with the added talents of Geri Allen and Afro Blue, could not garner the interest and support of a review.

Posted by: johmar1 | May 28, 2010 2:37 PM | Report abuse

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