The Charlin Jazz Society's "Jazz Centennial Concert" at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Sunday night was distinguished by high spirits, exemplary musicianship and, alas, poor sound.
The spirits were a given -- after all, Dizzy Gillespie was on hand to be presented the prestigious Duke Award of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. In accepting the honor, named after Duke Ellington, the 72-year-old trumpeter was in typically irrepressible form. Among other things, he told ASCAP President Morton Gould that since being anointed an African chief on a recent Nigerian tour, he prefers to go by the title "Baashere of Iperu," thank you. To the crowd's delight, he also seemed more interested in the young woman who carried the ASCAP plaque on stage than in the plaque itself -- at least for a moment or two.
The intermittent but often glaring sound problems weren't exactly a surprise either; this was hardly the first time the Concert Hall's cavernous acoustics dulled the sound of a small jazz ensemble and solo piano pieces. The muffled sound first became evident when a small group led by saxophonist James Moody and flutist Kent Jordan performed a Sonny Rollins piece. The usually aggressive and emphatic playing of pianist Maria Rodriguez seemed curiously muted, though the band eventually delivered a colorfully vibrant version of "Giant Steps."
Like Moody, many of the featured artists, previously showcased by Charlin in far more intimate and hospitable settings, covered familiar ground: Pianist Monty Alexander performed his delightfully evocative salute to Nat King Cole; singer Marlena Shaw eschewed her sometimes raunchy stage show in favor of an affecting tribute to the late Sarah Vaughan; and pianist Stanley Cowell conjured Art Tatum's awesome virtuosity. A refreshingly old-fashioned blues cameo by 19-year-old organist Joey DeFrancesco and solid solos and support by bassist Keter Betts, guitarist Paul Bollenbach and drummer Chuck Redd rounded out the small-group performances.
Not surprisingly, the musical high point came when the Count Basie Orchestra appeared, under the direction of tenor saxophonist Frank Foster. Relying on little amplification, the band roared through an exhilarating arrangement of "Whirly Bird," that was propelled by a surging horn section and the explosive and feverishly animated drummer Duffy Jackson. Later, despite some technical glitches, Gillespie and vocalist Carmen Bradford joined the band on more subdued, occasionally playful and often elegantly orchestrated standards.
Ably hosted by news anchor Renee Poussaint and the renowned jazz critic, composer and producer Leonard Feather, the evening was briskly paced -- perhaps a bit too briskly. Moody, one of the great humorists in jazz, never had a chance to utter a word, and Feather had little time to chat with the players or otherwise elaborate on the nature of the jazz centennial and the many changes he's witnessed firsthand over the years.