This year it made perfect sense for the Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival to honor pianist, composer, and educator Geri Allen, who performed at the festival numerous times and passed unexpectedly nearly two years ago at the age of 60. Even more appropriate was that the evening’s homage, MC’d by Dee Dee Bridgewater, was produced by Geri’s friend and colleague, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. A few days before the concert I asked Carrington what she missed most about her friend.
“The thing I miss most about Geri is playing with her,” she said. “Her sense of time and melodic lines were so original, and as I keep playing her music, I realize how great she really was. So happy we have so much of her music to continue to share with the world.”
Because this is a living art form, the best way to share Allen’s music is to perform it, and for the opening night of the festival on May 10, Carrington assembled a stellar group of musicians who knew exactly how to honor Ms. Allen, including Jason Moran, piano; Ravi Coltrane, saxophones; Dave Holland, bass; Haitian electronic percussionist and DJ Val Jeanty; and tap dancer Maurice Chestnut. They explored stunning arrangements of various Allen works: “A Place of Power,” “Feed the Fire,” “Running as Fast as You Can,” “Your Pure Self,” “The Nurturer,” “The Dancer,” “Swamini,” and “A Celebration of All Life.”
The evening was filled with surprises, among them Jason Moran’s opening move: playing in duet with a recording of Geri on Monk’s “Bemsha Swing.” Holland joined in, followed by Ravi Coltrane with a strong pulse and unexpected off-kilter phrases. As the band started to cook, I couldn’t take my eyes off of Carrington, who seamlessly folded all the creative elements into a beautiful organic whole. The band would spontaneously break off into duos and trios. At one point Carrington and Coltrane were locked in a ferocious duet, when Moran hit some chords and let them float and ring over the top like beautiful clouds over a polychromatic landscape.
Val Jeanty lit sparks with her drum samples sounding like super-hip hand drums. Holland’s gorgeous arco bass solo provided an effective contrast to the swirling sonic collage underneath. But perhaps the most arresting performance came from Chestnut, who evoked memories of Baby Laurence, John Bubbles, and Savion Glover, improvising in the moment and trading four- and eight-bar phrases with the leader. Hearing him on a recording is one thing, but being able to see his animated gestures and the way he uses his feet like little drums really drove home the point that so much of this music is about rhythm and time.
“Swamini” brought to mind Ravi Coltrane’s father’s famous cry. For “Unconditional Love,” the video screen revealed a beautiful shot of snow falling silently around Esperanza Spalding; then TLC and Holland locked in, allowing Moran’s lines to flow like waves dissolving into foam on the shore. Carrington shyly and self-deprecatingly introduced her own vocal on “The Nurturer,” which demonstrated yet another aspect of her multi-dimensional talents. It’s no wonder she’s an award-winning producer for so many great vocal recordings.
In a show that had many high points, they saved the best for last. TLC brought out Dee Dee Bridgewater to join the group for an epic musical conversation where everyone got their last licks in. The opening night of this festival set a high standard, and the musicians on the bill scheduled for the following night (Joanne Brackeen and Renee Rosnes) clearly had their work cut out for them. It turned out to be a fitting tribute to Geri Allen, Mary Lou Williams, and all the musicians involved.