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Bill Charlap & Gary Hobbs at the Earshot Jazz Festival


Over the course of three days and nights the 10th annual Mary Lou Williams Women In Jazz Festival paid tribute to its namesake while striking a balance between artistry, entertainment and a commitment to jazz education.

The festival began with Japanese pianist and keyboardist Hiromi rocking out with her high-energy trio skirting the borders of both fusion and smooth jazz. With the exception of one dreamy, ostinato-driven acoustic number, her set was a showcase for heavy chops, surprising harmonic twists, underwater synth sounds and booty-shaking bombast, which prompted shout-outs from the audience.

Drummer, composer Allison Miller followed with a strong set

featuring her new quartet Agrazing Maze, including bassist Carlo DeRosa, pianist Enrique Haneine, and the celebrated trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, who kicked off her shoes halfway into the first number. The group’s five tunes segued into one another, layering swirling solos with fragmented bits of

Latin flavor, abstract funk, an ethereal Kenny Wheeler-esque ballad for flugelhorn, and a kick-out-the-jams trumpet-drum duet on Heneine’s “Gerber Blender.”

The anti-climactic final set of the night belonged to the Kit

McClure Big Band, which turned in a lackluster performance of pieces from the International Sweethearts of Rhythm songbook, saved only by a special guest vocal from Carline Ray on “Don’t You Want to Jump Children,” and dynamic solos from trumpeter Tanya Darby, baritone saxophonist Clare Daily and drummer Sylvia Cuenca.

As part of the festival’s educational component, the Kennedy Center presented a free afternoon open jam session led by bassist Miriam Sullivan with drummer Luciana Padmore. In addition, the IAJE Sisters in Jazz Collegiate All-Stars performed two free shows on the Kennedy Center’s Millenium Stage. The program serves as a mentoring program for young women in jazz, and this years crop, with Delandria Mills, Lakecia Benjamin, Jacquelyn Coleman, Carmen Staaf, Maeve Royce and Hanne Pulli may be young in years but on tunes like “Red Clay,” Yes & No” and “Firm Roots” they sound like seasoned veterans.

This year also marked the first annual Kennedy Center Women in Jazz Pianist Competition. The five finalists, including Rebecca Cline, Miki Hayama, Mary Louise Knutson, Ayako Shriasaki and Daniela Schaechter performed for the public and competition judges: Dr. Trudy Pitts, Geri Allen and Dr. Billy Taylor. Ms. Schaecter was announced the winner and will be a featured performer in next year’s festival.

Friday night’s concert belonged to the Mary Lou Williams Resurgence Big Band, a 17-piece orchestra created to showcase Williams’ religious and secular work. Led by the vibraphonist, composer and arranger Cecilia Smith, the orchestra and vocalist Elon Robin Dixon performed a premiere of Williams’ hauntingly beautiful “Ghost of Love,” followed by pianist Amina Claudine Myers’ sanctified church solo on “What’s Your Story Morning Glory.” Reedmen Bill Easly and Howard Johnson stoked the fires of the riff-crazy

“Roll Em,” and trombonist Benny Powell got his licks in on a loping “Walkin’ & Swingin’,” a 1936 piece that foreshadowed Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning.” In the second half of the concert, the orchestra was joined by the Morgan State University Choir, directed by Eric Conway, for a series of deeply moving arrangements of William’s religious works, including “St. Martin De Pores,” which showcased the choir’s passion, disciplined dynamic control and hip phrasing. The evening came to a climax with 66 musicians and singers on stage making a joyful noise with the praise song “Come Holy Spirit,” complete with a rap/recitative, boisterous hand-clapping and infectious call and response between choir, orchestra and audience.

Hey, what’s a festival without an award? The 2005 Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Award went to the three original, indefatigable members of Jazzberry Jam: pianist Betha Hope, bassist Carline Ray and drummer Paula Hampton.

While receiving their award they indulged in some lighthearted shtick, which carried over into their performance on Saturday night. Joined by saxophonist Sue Terry, they breezed through an enjoyable set of standards and an infectious samba/bossa. Vocalist Ulysses Slaughter displayed his warm, buttery tone and easy falsetto on “My One and Only Love, while Carline Ray used her deep, dark contralto to wonderful effect on “Lazarus.”

After a brief intermission, pianist, composer and arranger Geri Allen performed Mary Lou Williams’ entire “Zodiac Suite” without interruption. Allen is an inspired choice to take on this monumental work and she brought to the task her characteristically strong technique, a creative harmonic

conception, a genuine feeling for the blues and a modern, cliché-free sensibility that brought the work to life without merely recreating it.

Allen was well served by her rhythm mates, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Mark Johnson, who both interacted as much as accompanied. Allen announced that the trio has recorded the suite, set for release in August. Do yourself

a favor; pick up the original Mary Lou Williams recording (recently reissued on Smithsonian Folkways), and then give a serious listen to Geri Allen’s new trio version. You’ll thank me later.

It would be hard for any musician to follow Geri Allen’s trio, but Rene Marie is no ordinary vocalist. She came out on stage by herself and sang an a cappella medley of “When You’re Smiling-Smile-Make Someone Happy” that had

the theater pin-drop quiet. Unlike most vocalists, Marie never cheats by scooping up to the note. Her sense of pitch and intonation is near perfect, and her phrasing is original. There’s simply no one else who sounds like her or writes songs like “Red Shoes,” the daring “Disconnect,” or her heart-felt “Song For Nina [Simone],” which transformed the chamber music hall into something of a revival meeting. Even when her trio with pianist Kevin Bales, bassist Herman Burney and drummer Quentin Baxter were playing, you couldn’t take your eyes off of Marie. She’s owns the stage in a way we haven’t seen since Betty Carter. Her wistful “Some Other Time” brought the evening and the festival to a close. As Marie whispered, “we don’t want to go,” the feeling was mutual.

Originally Published