Rifftides Washington, DC correspondent John Birchard is attending one of the city’s major music festivals. Here is his report on the first night.
13th ANNUAL THE KENNEDY CENTER MARY LOU WILLIAMS WOMEN IN JAZZ FESTIVAL
May 15, 2008
Review by John Birchard
They tried to find a longer name for the festival. The above is the best they could come up with. But that’s the Kennedy Center… big, bulky and institutional. Still, once you get inside that huge marble box, some nice things take place, like Women in Jazz.
This year’s fest began with Grace Kelly. Not the Princess of Monaco, of course, but the
ridiculously talented young saxophonist from Boston. Kelly, an Asian American celebrating her 16th birthday (yes!), led a quintet made up of drummer Terri Lynne Carrington, another woman who made her mark early; pianist Doug Johnson, bassist Evan Gregor; and trumpeter Jason Palmer.
Kelly led her band through a program of mostly originals, demonstrating her rapidly maturing style on alto and a penchant for latin rhythms and sophisticated melodies that incorporate interesting twists and turns. She played curved soprano on one number, showing off a rounded, pleasing tone. The only two standards in the program were a fresh approach to Gershwin’s “Summertime” and a lovely reading of Monk’s “Round Midnight” in which she played alto accompanied only by bassist Gregor. All of her bandmates performed well, especially Palmer, whose taste and imagination kept his impressive chops under control in the service of the music. It was a thoroughly satisfying set.
Before last night, I had never heard of the singer Catherine Russell. It’s my loss. She is the daughter of the late Luis Russell, who served as Louis Armstrong’s band director back in the 30s, and the bassist/singer Carline Ray. Catherine is a wonderful, strong singer with
a particular interest in old-timey songs like “My Man’s an Undertaker (He’s Got a Coffin Just Your Size”), “The Joint is Jumpin'” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “New Orleans”.
She was accompanied by a fine trio of swing-oriented musicians – pianist Mark Shane, guitarist Matt Munisteri who contributed several tasty and soulful solos, and bassist Lee Hudson. Russell’s repertoire is choice, from “I’m Lazy That’s All” associated with Pearl Bailey to “I’m Just a Sucker for a Broken Nose” and her own original “Lucy”, about various addictions. Her set was full of delightful surprises and when she closed out roaring with “Kitchen Man”, she had earned the cheers of the capacity crowd.
Rounding out the evening was the Japanese pianist Keiko Matsui, whose music is a far piece from Catherine Russell’s. It’s a combination of electric instruments (keyboards, bass, guitar), heavy percussion (a two-man battery), and a mix of Latin rhythms and New Age harmonies. The program was built completely on Ms Matsui’s original compositions, which this listener found to be repetitive, but which the audience applauded enthusiastically.
Her band was tight and expert in the repertoire. Steve Reid was especially effective surrounded by a collection of percussion items all of which he used. Keiko Matsui has abundant technique and is attractive and personable. I was bored by the performance, but the audience ate it up, so who’s wrong here?