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Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival

Cindy Blackman

The Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival is no longer the risky, ground-breaking venture it once was. After more than a dozen years the Kennedy Center has honed the formula for success: mix different styles with established names and lesser known acts, hold a competition, hand out a few awards and keep it fun. It seems to be working as all three nights in the 500-seat Terrace Theater were sold-out in advance.

The festival began on a cute note as up-and-coming alto saxophonist Grace Kelly celebrated her 16th birthday on stage. The precocious Ms. Kelly has several things going for her, including a nice sound, some well-written tunes and a charmingly chatty way of connecting with her audience. In her solos, Kelly occasionally lapses into repetitive clichés, but it’s a good sign that she’s working with musicians who challenge her, especially the explosive drummer Terri Lynn Carrington and trumpeter Jason Palmer.

Vocalist Catherine Russell followed by taking it up a notch or three with her highly entertaining set of off-the-beaten-track ballads, blues and novelty numbers. Backed by a hard-swinging trio, Russell got big laughs with her playful timing and suggestive double entendres on Bessie Smith’s “Kitchen Man” and Dinah Washington’s “My Man’s An Undertaker.” She also demonstrated finesse and hip phrasing on Rachelle Garniez’s “Broken Nose” and “There’s So Little Time,” written by her late father Luis Russell for Louis Armstrong. By the end of her set, Russell had the audience eating out of the palm of her hand. This lady’s got the goods.

Based on the raucous applause that greeted Japanese keyboardist Keiko Matsui, most of the crowd had come to see her (and her glamorous red dress!). In its own way, Matsui’s brand of smooth jazz is somewhat selfless, with an emphasis on groove and catchy hooks rather than look-at-me solos. On popular pieces like “Dolls,” “Moyo” and “Light Above the Trees,” her band backed her like a well-oiled machine, though it’s a little odd to hear a pre-recorded drum track in a live setting. Smooth jazz may be dead as a radio format but it’s alive in the concert hall.

The opening act of the second night, pianist Helen Sung, offered one of the strongest sets of the entire festival. Leading a quartet with saxophonist Steve Wilson, bassist Richie Goods and drummer Donald Edwards, Sung served up a medley of Monk tunes, including “In Walked Bud,” “Bye-Ya” and “Bright Mississippi” (based on “Sweet Georgia Brown”). Her arrangement made imaginative use of disguised intros, vamp transitions between solos, and off-kilter dissonance in her left hand comping. Sung’s classical studies were obvious in her expressive touch and rubato approach on “Shall We Tango,” as Goods played triple stops and Edwards locked into a Poinciana beat.

Sung, who won the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz piano competition last year, helped present this year’s saxophone competition award to young Hailey Mae Niswanger. The festival then gave its biggest Women in Jazz award to vocalist Sheila Jordan. It was an inspired choice, as Jordan embodies the generosity, commitment and creative spirit of Williams. At age 79, Jordan has lost some of her breath control, which affects her intonation, but she hit the festival’s emotional high point as she accepted her award and sang her thanks to Charlie Parker a cappella. She also reminisced that “Every time I come to D.C. I think of my dear friend Shirley Horn.”

During Jordan’s set, longtime accompanist Steve Kuhn inserted clever musical quotes, and then played an achingly beautiful solo on “It Never Entered My Mind.” But the most moving moment of the entire festival came during the final selection when Jordan invited fellow vocalist and former student Theo Bleckmann to come out of the audience and join her in a heartbreaking, bittersweet medley of “Every Time We Say Goodbye” and “For All We Know.”

I had hoped to stay for drummer Sherrie Maricle and her group Five Play but there was no way to follow Jordan and Bleckmann, except out the door.

The festival’s final night began with the Russian-born, Canadian vocalist Sophie Milman, a remarkably self-assured young singer with a pleasant sound and agile alto. She opened with Jobim’s “Agua de Beber” (in English) followed by a brisk “People Will Say We’re In Love.” With all her technique, Milman is prone to over-singing, but she had a nice intimate duet with bassist Kieran Overs on the intro to “Beautiful Love.” Over the course of half a dozen songs, her distinctive vibrato, which seemed refreshing at first, wore a bit thin and her choice of repertoire (including “Bye Bye Love” and “Matchmaker”) could use some rethinking. Does she want to be a jazz singer or a lounge act?

Just returning from an Australian tour, drummer Cindy Blackman and her quartet showed no sign of jet-lag. Their hard-driving, exploratory set opened with saxophonist J.D. Allen blowing a five-note phrase as he casually walked onto the stage. The band took that idea and ran with it, spinning variations with subtle twists, turns and inversions. Allen’s clearly articulated lines contrasted effectively with the quartet’s rough-and-tumble approach. Blackman was particularly dynamic employing polyrhythms, call-and-response phrases and a kind of Tony Williams thunderous roar. Nice to see Blackman and Carrington, two of the greatest female drummers in jazz, on this year’s festival.

Make it three of the greatest if you add Allison Miller, who was featured with the Montclair Women’s Big Band. Miller is best known for leading her own groups, but she seemed right at home kicking the band on “Whirley Bird” and “Tattle Tale.” The big band from Oakland featured several fine soloists, notably trombonist Sarah Cline, alto saxophonist Mad Duran, tenor saxophonist Jean Fineberg, and trumpeters Christy Dana and band Director Ellen Seeling. The saxophone and trombone sections also got a good workout on a knock-out arrangement of “Just Friends.” Most surprising, though, was guest percussionist and vocalist Vicki Randle. Those who’ve caught a glimpse of Randle from her regular gig with The Tonight Show band might not realize what a good singer she is, but she killed on “The Lady is a Tramp” and “Come Rain or Come Shine” (love those descending octaves). Jay Leno, give her some air-time!

Originally Published