Abbey Lincoln’s music kept alive in Kennedy Center tribute

May 22, 2011

Not long before her death last summer, jazz vocalist and composer Abbey Lincoln asked singer Dee Dee Bridgewater to keep her music alive. She didn’t have to ask twice.

Indeed, Bridgewater couldn’t have appeared more committed to the cause at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Friday night, during the 16th edition of the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival. The recipient of the event’s annual award for achievement in jazz, Bridgewater hosted the tribute with charm and energy, sharing the stage with vocalists Dianne Reeves and Cassandra Wilson in a program devoted almost exclusively to Lincoln’s songbook.

And what a songbook it is: encouraging and defiant, political and poetic, soulful and strident, mystical and philosophic. It’s a challenging repertoire, even for three top-tier vocalists, and although some of the performances would have benefited from more rehearsal time — teleprompters displaying the lyrics came in handy — strong emotional connections triggered the evening’s highlights.

Topping the list was a vocally resounding, rhythmically surging arrangement of “Freedom Day.” Rewarded by a huge ovation, it featured the three singers at their most passionate, spontaneous and exuberant, fueled by the percussive support of a sextet led by drummer Terri Lyne Carrington.

When the singers joined voices, sharing harmonies and trading verses, they sometimes conjured the sound of a marvelously compact reed section, robust and reverberant. In solo settings, however, another dynamic came into play. Each singer displayed a distinct personality: Bridgewater with her raspy shouts and engaging theatricality; Reeves with her unerring musicianship and remarkable range; Wilson with her dusky tone and insinuating delivery.

Mutual admiration was the prevailing tone, but Wilson couldn’t resist playfully admonishing Reeves after her crowd-thrilling, testifying version of “Tender as a Rose.” “You better quit, girl,” she said, before taking on the unenviable task of redirecting the audience’s attention.

Wilson was in familiar company. Marvin Sewell, her longtime guitarist, contributed a wide array of blues and funk accents. The arrangements, however, were so colorfully varied that the focus often shifted from Carrington to her bandmates — pianist Peter Martin, percussionist Luisito Quintero, bassist James Genus and saxophonist Mark Turner, who complemented the vocals with shadings and counterpoint. Bridgewater suggested that she and her fellow singers, performing together for the first time, should take the show on the road. But by then, the same thought likely had occurred to a lot of folks in the capacity crowd.

Anecdotes peppered the performance. Wilson, a budding artist when she first encountered Lincoln in the mid-’80s, recalled asking the diva if she could record her anthem, “I Got Thunder, And It Rings.” As Wilson demonstrated, Lincoln paced back and forth, anxiously twisting a handkerchief with her fingers, shooting sidelong glances at the young upstart. Permission wasn’t granted, Wilson said. But “now, it’s time,” she added, charging the song with the full authority it demanded.

During another, more reflective interlude, Reeves noted that Lincoln defined jazz as “a spirit.” Hard to quarrel with that view after witnessing the evening’s most stirring and heartfelt performances. The concert was taped for future broadcast on NPR’s “Jazz Set With Dee Dee Bridgewater.”

Joyce is a freelance writer.

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