To borrow a title from his songbook, NEA Jazz Master Billy Taylor was “Back Home” at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater on Friday night.
“This feels right,” said trumpeter Terence Blanchard, hosting a sold-out tribute to the late pianist, composer and educator. A Washington native, Taylor died in December at 89, after serving as the Kennedy Center artistic adviser for jazz for more than 15 years.
Thanks to pianist-musical director Geri Allen, the concert celebrated Taylor’s legacy with efficiency and taste, even when keyboardists swarmed the stage. “It’s a Grand Night for Swinging” found five pianists — Allen, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Cyrus Chestnut, Danilo Perez and 22-year-old Taylor protege Christian Sands — sharing three pianos and the same creative wavelength. A small miracle, given the largely improvised coordination of “50 fingers,” as Blanchard noted.
The cast wasn’t short on vocalists, who referenced Taylor’s affection for jazz, blues, gospel and spirituals, displaying voices sublime (opera soprano Harolyn Blackwell), sensuous (Carmen Lundy) and nimble (Howard University vocal ensemble Afro Blue). “Peaceful Warrior,” Taylor’s homage to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., inspired a richly textured interlude, but nothing proved more stirring than Lundy’s rendition of “There Will Never Be Another You.” Pianist Akiyoshi, who met Taylor in the mid-’50s, struck a similarly elegiac chord with a solo recital of her ballad “Farewell.”
Complementing the music was a display of family photos — vivid reminders of his full life, as were the pieces he dedicated to his wife (“Theodora”) and daughter (“Kim’s Song”), who were present.
It’s a shame that saxophonist Frank Wess, who grew up in the District with Taylor, canceled his appearance because of health issues. The lineup could have used a few veterans who shared the bandstand with Taylor early in his career. For those who had the pleasure of hearing Taylor perform with his trio — an art that would trigger his high-beam smile — the return of bassist Chip Jackson and drummer Winard Harper was welcome. Blanchard’s soulful, bop-inflected horn enhanced the performances of “One for the Woofer” and other small combo pieces, and the tunes showcased Jackson’s aggressive, witty attack and Harper’s wonderfully syncopated animation. In no time at all, they found their groove again.
Other highlights included an all-hands-on-deck arrangement of Taylor’s signature theme “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” and the inspired pairing of Allen and Perez in “Can You Tell by Looking at Me?”
Near the end, Sands stood at a piano center stage. When he slowly put on his glasses (Taylor was famous for his outsize eyewear), the crowd erupted with laughter. Innumerable jazz veterans have helped pass the jazz torch, but no one was more committed than Taylor to making sure the flame would burn on.
The concert was part of the Kennedy Center’s “Swing, Swing, Swing” festival, which runs through Nov. 26.
Joyce is a freelance writer.