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In concert: Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra's Mary Lou Williams Centennial Salute at the Kennedy Center

SJMOThe Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra paid tribute to Mary Lou Williams. (All photos by Mark Abramson/TWP)

By Mike Joyce

The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra’s centennial salute to jazz pianist, composer and arranger Mary Lou Williams at Baird Auditorium on Friday night was, by necessity, swiftly paced, and yet even then it only skimmed the surface of her vast and multifaceted repertoire. Still, echoes of Williams’ engaging, swing era propulsion, boogie woogie left hand and blues-tinted embellishments offered a delightfully buoyant contrast to sweltering temperatures outside.

SJMO

Under the direction of David Baker, the ensemble ultimately achieved what it set out to accomplish during two hour-long sets by illustrating how Williams, who died in 1981 at age 71, managed to be both of her time and ahead of her time. The first half of the program, beginning with her signature fanfare “Roll Em,” revealed how Williams consistently capitalized on swing era tempo and time constraints, often while writing or arranging for Andy Kirk, Benny Goodman and other bandleaders. Her orchestration of “Blue Skies,” arranged for Duke Ellington in 1944, generated crackling sparks, and in such pieces as “Mary’s Idea” and “Scorpio,“ Williams took full advantage of a big band’s tonal palette.

Greater emphasis on William’s forward-thinking compositions would have been welcome, but some of the selections performed later in the evening, particularly the noir-ish, 1968 piece “Aries Mood: A Portrait of Ben Webster,” were vivid reminders of her inquisitive nature and harmonic resourcefulness. As usual, the SJMO displayed power and finesse during the concert, sometimes pitting fiery brass against resonating reeds, and featured numerous soloists who colorfully enhanced the performances.

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By Mike Joyce  |  July 26, 2010; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  In concert  | Tags: Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra  
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