Mary Lou Williams Festival 2010
May 20-22, 2010
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.
Hosted by Dee Dee Bridgewater and Terri Lyne Carrington, 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 (saxophone), Geri Allen (piano), Esperanza Spalding (bass), and Terri Lyne Carrington (drums).
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.
Unfortunately, the festival's second night followed a similar pattern as the first. The night began at its high point with Afro Blue's rendition of Williams' "Tell Him Not To Talk Too Long" from Mary Lou's Mass. Rendered gorgeously by the young Howard University student ensemble, the tune's soulful, half blues, half hymn combination was an auspicious preview of the Mass' full performance the third night.
Next up was Sherrie Maricle & the Diva Orchestra for a set of hard-swung, big band tunes running the gamut from the aggressive "Rollin," written for Benny Goodman, to the loping blues "Big Jim Blues," to a medley of Ella Fitzgerald's favorite hits. While a fairly regular feature of the Women in Jazz Festival, and performing some familiar tunes such as the Fitzgerald medley, the Orchestra's repeat appearance seemed justified by Williams' role as big band composer and arranger, not to mention the relative dearth of all-women big bands. From her seat at the drums, Maricle did her always admirable job of laying down the beats, leading the band smoothly and working the crowd with a steady stream of stories, jokes, and commentary. For their part, the band members delivered a hard-driving set that not only swung decisively, but showcased their versatility as soloists. A well-honed unit, the Diva orchestra was, as always, a crowd-pleaser.
The Diva Orchestra was followed by vocalist Catherine Russel, whose unfortunately overdramatized vocals marred the second night's more impressive performances as Bridgewater's had the first's. Russel's performance made one wonder about the program choice, particularly considering her repertoire seemed barely related to Mary Lou Williams' oeuvre, instead primarily pulled from her own most recent album. Russel's rendition of Fats Waller's "We, The People" fell flat from over polishing. Instead of mining the cleverly evil lyrics of Dinah Washington's "Undertaker," Russel's delivery left them bare and exposed. In the end, it was not so much a question of vocal chopsRussel certainly has thosebut a matter of her too- obvious interpretation which drained the vigor of each tune.
From start to finish, however, the concluding night of the festival served as a pitch perfect tribute to Mary Lou Williams. The final night's program delivered astounding music covering the historical and creative sweep of Williams' work, and was also infused with a strong educational element typical of the Kennedy Center's best events.
The evening began with Afro Blue's performance of "St. Marten de Porres," a haunting hymn which, as host Carrington explained, Williams composed in honor of the first canonized black saint. As on previous evenings, the ensemble delivered a deeply moving rendition, cutting to the core of the songs powerful spiritual and political statement through their integration of traditional church hymn, scat singing, and blues vocalization.
The audience was then treated to another big band excursion, this time led by Maiden Voyage, the all- female cast of which hit the stage with a big, powerful sound. Bandleader Anne Patterson guided the audience through eight tunes, all but one by Williams, annotating each with an explanation of its origin. Concentrating on a set of tunes composed or arranged by Williams for Duke Ellington, several of which he never actually recorded, Maiden Voyage nailed tune after tune. One highlight of this compelling and informational set included the dark, moody opening number, "Lonely Moments." The song's highly syncopated, angular structure aptly illustrated Williams' innovative qualitiesparticularly considering she composed it in 1947. Other peaks included Monk's "I Mean You," notable in large part for an impressive solo by baritone saxophonist Claire Daly, and the slow blues "Scratchin' in the Gravel."
Saxophonist Virginia Mayhew's quartet was the next to interpret Williams' music, delving into a selection that Mayhew had identified through her research for the festival. Mayhew's research included listening to over a hundred compositions before selecting just a handful to arrange and perform. Comprised of Mayhew on tenor sax, Kenny Wessel on guitar, Harvie S on bass, and Vince Ector on drums, the quartet applied a thoroughly contemporary take to this selection, proving that Williams' music still provides fertile musical territory today. Particularly compelling were "J.D.'s Waltz," a mid-tempo blues Williams' wrote for her brother on which Wessel delivered a stunning, far ranging solo; a long, spacious version of "Cancer"; and the quartet's take on "New Musical Express," intriguing both for Mayhew's blistering solo and the simple pleasure of comparing the various interpretations given this tune throughout the festival. The absolute highlight of the set, and one of the festival's most memorable moments, was the haunting "Medi I and Medi II." Building on a wrenching melody, the band captured the tune's haunting pathos.
The festival reached its culmination next with the performance of Mary Lou Williams' Mass by Afro Blue, Carmen Lundy (vocals), Gerri Allen (piano), Kenny Davis (bass), and Andrew Cyrille (drums). Written in 1969 under a papal commission, Williams' Mass (originally titled Music for Peace), is a statement of profound religious belief and represented a groundbreaking integration of African-American musical traditions with traditional sacred Catholic music. The full scope of the Mass incorporates blues, gospel, and jazz, while its structure follows traditional liturgical service.
Lead by Lundy and Allen, the collective presented sixteen pieces, each a magnificent gem individually, but which combined formed a deeply affecting whole. Lundy's masterful singing embodied the music's grandeur and passion, whether diving into the blues depths of "Lazarus," or joining with the chorus for the impassioned call to faith "Holy, Holy, Holy." Throughout, Allen provided note-perfect accompaniment, as well as multiple intricate solos that drove home the inspirational power of Williams' composition. An astounding accomplishment by all involved, the night's performance made clear that the historical significance of Williams' Mass is only surpassed by its lasting beauty and force of purpose.
By the end of the three-day Women In Jazz festival honoring Mary Lou Williams' birth and her legendary musical contributions, the Kennedy Center had succeeded in painting a portrait of Mary Lou Williams that revealed the historical scope of her influence on jazz's development, the enormity of her gifts, and the profundity of her spiritual commitment. In doing so, the Kennedy Center provided a great service by exposing the wide range of Williams' music to a broader audience. Virginia Mayhew described her experience preparing for the festival as follows:
"I had the impression that she was a very good musician, but it wasn't until I started delving into her recordings and scores that I began to realize the extent of her musicianship. My respect for her is tremendous and continues to grow."
The three-day exploration of Williams' music allowed the audience to experience this same revelation. It also became clear that Mary Lou Williams' music possesses a depth and expansiveness sadly still not fully recognized and absorbed by the jazz world, the cannon of which still routinely lists its pantheon of greats with no mention of her name. Therefore, perhaps ironically, the very success of the festival in providing audiences access to Williams' astonishing musical career illustrated the continued relevance of the Women in Jazz festival as a whole and its importance in furnishing a space for the many women voices of jazz, past and present, to be highlighted.