Though the 2004 edition of the Sisters in Jazz Collegiate All-Stars hadn't performed for nearly six months before its Kennedy Center Millennium Stage concert Thursday evening, it didn't take long for the ensemble to display its talent and cohesiveness.
This year's quintet of four Americans and an Australian -- bassist Linda Oh -- distinguished itself during a competition conducted by the International Association of Jazz Educators. After a tentative start, the group settled into a relaxed, Count Basie-inspired groove that was briefly enlivened by pianist Brenda Earle's buoyant attack.
The tunes that immediately followed were more expressive and revealing. "The Sea Trials," a languid ballad, provided tenor saxophonist Janelle Reichman with a particularly soulful showcase, and both she and soprano saxophonist Ariel Alexander later brought a warmly harmonized glow to the Billy Strayhorn gem "Chelsea Bridge." The latter arrangement was also marked by Earle's blues-tinted touch and colorful thematic allusions.
When the mood turned upbeat, Earle demonstrated her finesse as a vocalist by teaming up with veteran jazz singer Sunny Wilkinson, the group's artistic director, during a freely improvised, scat-laced version of "It Could Happen to You." Alexander's slow-burning composition "Crossed Out" and a whimsically deconstructed version of "I Got Rhythm" offered additional contrasts, each neatly underpinned by bassist Oh and drummer Maria Joyner.
As in years past, the performance served as an enjoyable and heartening preface to the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival, which runs through Saturday at the Kennedy Center.
-- Mike Joyce