"Happiness is a thing called being here," said jazz great Billy Taylor at the Kennedy Center on Tuesday night. And no doubt plenty of admirers who packed the Terrace Theater to hear the 81-year-old pianist perform his first full-length jazz concert since suffering a minor stroke a year ago were thinking the very same thing.
Hosting a New Year's Eve bash featuring some of his closest friends, Taylor opened the late show with a solo arrangement of "All the Things You Are" that took advantage of his still-dexterous left hand.
What began as a strictly southpaw recital, however, soon revealed an intricate contrapuntal weave, proof that Taylor's right hand, while affected by the stroke, remains sufficiently nimble. In fact, he used his right hand sparingly but effectively throughout the evening, in both solo and small combo settings, lacing the arrangements with harmonic nuances, melodic embellishments and emphatic block chords.
Two of his compositions provided splendid showcases for his longtime trio mates: bassist Chip Jackson, who adroitly used all manner of plucked, gliding and strummed tones to dramatize "Conversion"; and drummer Winard Harper, who animated the otherwise vamp-driven "Titoro" with sharply syncopated rhythms and a sweeping cross-sticks crescendo played out on cymbals.
Then along came Jimmy Owens, the veteran trumpeter and fluegelhorn player, altering the mood with "Broken Foot Blues," an original tune inspired by his wife's unfortunate encounter with a New York pothole. Owens was out front for the first four choruses, though each sounded different, variously colored by smeared, sputtering and ringing tones. While Owens contributed some of the evening's earthier sounds, tenor saxophonist Frank Wess, Taylor's boyhood chum, was responsible for the most eloquent: a sublime rendering of "All Too Soon," suffused with unwavering soulfulness and melancholia.
The final guest instrumentalist to appear onstage was also the youngest: 29-year-old vibist Stefon Harris. A disciple of the late Milt Jackson, Harris never appeared more comfortable or inspired than when fluidly collaborating with Taylor and company on Thelonious Monk's " 'Round Midnight." Among other things, the performance sometimes evoked Jackson's blues sensibility and his classic recordings with Monk. A vibrant, Afro-Cuban-flavored sextet reprise of "Diz" stirred memories of another jazz titan by brashly celebrating Dizzy Gillespie's cross-cultural legacy.
Singer Ethel Ennis, whom Taylor took under his wing some 40 years ago, was also in fine form, her voice warm and flexible, her spirit bright and contagious. She won over the audience with a curious collection of tunes: a sparse, bass-and-fingersnapping arrangement of "Love You Madly," a reflective reading of the Taylor admonition "If You Really Are Concerned," and, most surprising of all, a full-tilt jazz treatment of "Tomorrow," the Broadway showstopper from "Annie," which Ennis somehow managed to reclaim from that vast pile of pop songs marked "Perform at your own peril."
The show ended with the audience on its feet, clamoring for more, and Taylor hugging his friends onstage. Not a bad way to ring in the New Year.