Pianist Mary Watkins' concert at Gaston Hall last night turned out to be more than just a homecoming. It was an evening filled with thoughtful and provacative music as well.

Watkins, a graduate of Howard University, is a jazz composer of considerable talent and individuality. She seemed to be saying as much in some of her contemplative pieces -- her eyes fixed on the keyboard, her right foot deliberately tapping out the beat -- as she did when racing headlong into one of the many percussive passages that mark her work.

As a pianist, Watkins has developed a romantic, highly conversational approach between her hands. Last night she seldom reached above the middle register, and when she did -- as on "Witches' Revenge" -- it was a swift and purposeful movement.Like a compass, her strong sense of melody pointed the way out of her most complex improvisations, and gave each of the pieces she performed a distinct and familiar identity. Bassist Jan Martinelli and drummer Bernice Brooks supported her throughout.

Earlier, the Washington poet Michelle Parkerson expressed some concern about boring the audience. She needn't have worried. Her acerbic poetry, recited in scat-like candences and acted out in broad, emphatic gestures, captivated the small but receptive crowd.

Mary Watkins performs next at Blues Alley Monday night.