In celebration of the 100th anniversary of her birth, this year's Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival was dedicated to the music of its namesake. This focus lent the festival's 15th year at the Kennedy Center a special significance and provided an opportunity to honor the compositions and musical adventurousness of one of jazz's greatest figures, often hailed as the genre's most influential female contributor.
Prior to the festival, the Kennedy Center embarked on an ambitious project to prepare for the homage. Kennedy Center jazz specialists worked in close collaboration with Father O'Brien, formerly Mary Lou Williams
' priest and currently the executor of her estatewhich includes an extensive library of her compositionsas well as with featured artists, to assemble an appropriate selection of Ms. Williams' varied musical output while providing new historical context.
, each night of the festival began with a performance by Howard University's jazz vocal ensemble Afro Blue, followed by individual group performances, with each group featuring the compositions and arrangements of Mary Lou Williams. Unfortunately, this innovative programming structure was not able to fulfill its design as an homage commensurate with Williams' stature until the festival's third night. The first two nights were marred by a number of less-than-overwhelming performances as well as a handful of programming choices that did not work. These missteps, however, were stunningly redeemed by the last night's rich slate of memorable performances, culminating in a magnificent and deeply poignant presentation of William's magnum opus, Mary Lou's Mass.
As noted above, the first evening began with a piece by the vocal group Afro Blue, whose expertly handled nightly performances were a highlight of the festival. This opening was followed with a set by the All-Star Quintet, comprised of Dee Dee Bridgewater (vocals), Grace Kelly
Following standard form, the quintet opened with three tunes before being joined by Bridgewater: "Miss D.D.," "Pisces," and "New Musical Express." All three are Williams originals and the band explored each with verve and alacrity. On "Miss D.D.," Allen produced a riveting solo built on a roiling, dark foundation, taking full advantage of the piece's crescendo structure to open the set with a bang. Extracted from William's Zodiac Suite, "Pisces" was equally well treated, with Grace Kelly adding an elegantly restrained voice made up of subtle dynamic shifts and a refined tone. The quartet moved next to "New Musical Express," a bop-ish platform for some clever, unscripted trading between Allen and Carrington that had the audience shouting in appreciation, as well as a well-articulated, jaunty solo by Kelly that underscored her subtle use of space. Unfortunately, throughout the set, Kelly suffered from poor sound mixing that made it difficult to fully appreciate her work.
Dee Dee Bridgewater then joined the stage for a bombastically delivered series of four tunes, the overwrought delivery of which stood in stark contrast to the engaging, serious music it followed, and which moreover felt out of place in the context of the festival's purpose. Where phrases should have softly faded, Bridgewater employed every ounce of her considerable vocal range to add melodramatic flourishes such as warbles and glissandi. Where restraint would have facilitated her integration with the rest of the band, Bridgewater chose to intercede with over-the-top scatting or to distract with silly, overly stagy facial expressions and gesticulations. Particularly grating was a rendition of one of Williams' signature tunes, "What's the Story Morning Glory?," taken as a blues so supersaturated with moans and vocal contortions as to be camp. In the end, Bridgewater's theatrics bordered on parody; a shame considering her abilities.
Next to take the stage was Carmen Staaf, winner of the 2009 Mary Lou Williams Pianist Competition. Performing with a trio, Staaf presented a mix of original compositions and pieces somehow related to Williams. For each, Staaf provided a detailed explanation of its origins, adding a heartfelt explanation of her respect for William's music and generosity of spirit. Equally sincere in her playing, Staaf delivered clearly articulated ideas, particularly on her own well-structured original compositions. Of particular note was her solo piece "Rory."
The first evening concluded with an encore set by the All-Star Quintet, with the quartet providing two well- executed tunes, "Drummers Song" and "If That's True," before being joined again by Bridgewater for more vocal indulgences.