Even more impressive than the list of stars at the "Evening of Jazz, Jazz, Jazz" were the new constellations those stars formed at Constitution Hall last night. The 45-year-old bassist Ron Carter coaxed the 21-year-old saxophonist Branford Marsalis out of his nervousness and into wistful phrases that wrapped around Carter's glowing slides and harmony notes. Pop-jazz stars Noel Pointer and Rodney Franklin reminded everyone that the concert was a benefit for the National Urban Coalition with a violin/piano duet on James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Every Voice and Sing" (a.k.a. the Negro National Anthem). The crowd rose to its feet and sang along.
Pianist McCoy Tyner first appeared alone to play Ellington's "Prelude to a Kiss." The tension between the dark gravity of his percussive left hand and the harmonic flights of his agile right hand reaffirmed his preeminence. Tyner was then joined by another acclaimed bandleader, Arthur Blythe, for a duo version of Thelonious Monk's "Ruby, My Dear." Blythe sustained the gorgeous ballad with a luscious buttery tone, while Tyner was rhythm section enough by himself. Tyner and Blythe were then joined by free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman for a trio version of Coleman's "The Straight Line in a Circle." The two alto saxophonists stood side-by-side, Blythe playing melodic harmonies and Coleman tugging at the melody to stretch it into surprises. Tyner rained down thick storms of piano notes behind them.
Coleman also led his Prime Time Band--two facing electrified bass/ drums/guitar trios with the saxophonist at the fulcrum. Their three songs were fast, faster and fastest--with complex harmonies fitted inside the jagged dance beat. Branford Marsalis joined his 20-year-old brother Wynton Marsalis' quintet. Wynton Marsalis, trumpet prodigy, has been to Washington four times in the past few months and grows more confident with each visit. His solos bared a fierce edge on their commanding technique. The star of the Charles Earland Trio was not the rather ordinary organist/bandleader, but Jimmy Ponder whose guitar solos had a distinctive voicing.
Pianist Ramsey Lewis was all show and no substance. Flutist Hubert Laws, who dueted with Lewis, displayed the classical technique and jazz imagination he rarely shows in his pop concerts. Carter, Tyner, Blythe, Coleman and Wynton Marsalis will play the Kool Jazz Festival at the Kennedy Center May 30.