Mary Lou Williams Festival 2010
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.