By Mike Joyce
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, May 15, 2006
If you're going to kick off the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival alone, playing a pair of piano tributes -- one to the event's namesake, the other to founder and guiding light Billy Taylor -- isn't a bad way to go. Of course having Taylor, who recently said he was retiring from public performances, join you for a bluesy coda is probably too much to ask.
Or is it?
Although always careful to keep the spotlight on festival headliners, the 85-year-old jazz legend couldn't turn down an invitation to sit beside pianist and composer Jessica Williams when the 11th edition of the festival got underway Thursday night at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.
The opportunity came moments after Williams performed several imaginatively harmonized solo piano pieces from a new suite she wrote in Taylor's honor. Among them was "Taylor's Triumph," an apt description of the festival itself. The duo's four-handed finale quickly proved a delight, with Williams and Taylor trading parts (and places on the piano stool). Initially Williams took the high road, favoring treble-register trills and triplets, while Taylor sustained a walking bass line with his left hand.
It's hard to recall the festival opening on a more fitting and crowd-pleasing note. The three consecutive nights of concerts were sold out, thanks in large part to the box office draw of renowned vocalists Dee Dee Bridgewater, Ernestine Anderson and Abbey Lincoln. Bridgewater, always a live wire onstage, was in typically exuberant form, whether swept up by the churning polyrhythms generated by her terrific quintet (featuring pianist Edsel Gomez, drummer Antonio Sanchez and percussionist Pernell Saturnino) or playfully climbing out on a limb during a vocal improvisation inspired by freestyle rap.
Anderson's performance was a cozy affair by comparison. Backed by a nimble trio, she perched herself on a chair center stage and charmed the audience. Chatty and engaging, she moved from nonchalant swing ("On the Sunny Side of the Street") to a sassy rendition of her trademark tune, "Never Make Your Move Too Soon." Lincoln, however, struggled through her set, often losing track of the lyrics. "I've composed so many," she said at the height of her exasperation. She also had difficulty falling in sync with her gifted (and, on this occasion, extremely resourceful) accompanists -- pianist James Weidman, bassist Michael Bowie and drummer Jaz Sawyer. Still, the singer showed plenty of resolve. With a packed house cheering her on, she fashioned a wistful interpretation of "I Should Care" and a similarly affecting a cappella rendering of "Tender as a Rose." Like Bridgewater and Anderson, she walked offstage to a standing ovation.
The remaining headliners, festival newcomers and favorites alike, covered a wide swath of mainstream jazz styles. The moods ranged from pianist Daniela Schaechter's impressionistic balladry and guitarist Mimi Fox's elegantly embellished quartet and solo arrangements to the organ-driven grooves of bands led by trombonist Sarah Morrow and keyboardist Trudy Pitts. Among the festival's highlights was Morrow's distinctive take on Thelonious Monk's "Blue Monk" and Pitts's Hammond-powered rendition of Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz."
Saved for last was the biggest and brashest group -- the Diva Jazz Orchestra. Led by drummer Sherrie Maricle and featuring several fine soloists, the 15-woman ensemble capped the festival with a series of surging, custom-tailored arrangements, including vibrant charts written by John McNeil ("The Claw") and Tommy Newsom ("Lady Be Good"). Particularly impressive was clarinetist Anat Cohen's virtuosic turn on "What a Little Moonlight Can Do."
Two honors were announced during the event: Veteran pianist, singer and composer Patti Bown won the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival Award, while Mayuko Katakura took top honors in the festival's second annual piano competition.