Correspondent John Birchard patrols the jazz precincts of the US capital city for Rifftides.
13th Annual Women In Jazz Festival
Kennedy Center, Washington, DC
May 16, 2008
Review by John Birchard
Pianist Helen Sung, who won last year’s Kennedy Center Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz competition, led off the Friday night event. Heading a quartet that included saxophonist Steve Wilson, bassist Richie Goods and drummer Donald Edwards, Sung
presented a package of three compositions by Thelonious Monk, intriguingly re-arranged. She took the third piece, “Bright Mississippi”, at a blistering tempo that showed off the leader’s impressive keyboard technique.
A pair of originals completed Sung’s program. Sung began her “Shall We Tango” with an out-of-tempo introduction that emphasized the seductive tango rhythm but in an impressionistic way. Steve Wilson was effective in his solo, as was bassist Goods. An attractive composition called “Songbird” was the set closer, incorporating Latin rhythm with more of Sung’s engaging style at the keyboard.
Next up was the singer Sheila Jordan, who was presented the 2008 Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Award for her contributions to the music over the years. She joins such other artists as Jane Iran Bloom, the late Patti Bown, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Marian McPartland and Melba Liston as winners of the award. Jordan described herself as “seventy-nine-and-a-half” years old, but “feeling fourteen.”
Jordan eased into “Lucky to Be Me” by improvising on the lyric to thank the Kennedy Center and Billy Taylor, artistic director for jazz at the Center, for honoring her. Her
intonation is a little shaky these days, but she overcomes it by hitting the notes she’s capable of and half-talking the rest. She was joined on stage by a stellar trio – Steve Kuhn on piano, David Finck on bass and the drummer Billy Drummond, a group certainly capable of carrying a set by themselves. Jordan was engaging and funny in her between-songs commentary, a sort of stream-of-consciousness series of ad libs that delighted the Terrace Theater audience. Following the Ivan Lins melody, “The Promise of You”, Jordan had fun with Bobby Timmons’ “Dat Dere”. Her tribute to Miles Davis began with her own seemingly improvised lyric about Miles’ ballad playing and segued into “It Never Entered My Mind”.
Jordan then introduced from the audience her former student Theo Blackman, who joined her on stage to sing “Every Time We Say Good-bye”, which Jordan followed with a slow, heart-felt reading of “For All We Know”. The two embraced and exchanged kisses, their obvious rapport with each other generating a warm bath of applause.
Jordan closed her set with a blues that featured more apparently spontaneous lyrics including thanks to her accompanists, the Kennedy Center, her late friend Shirley Horn–a Washington native–and the audience for supporting live music. What Sheila Jordan may have lost over the years in vocal equipment, she has more than made up for in stage presence and infectious personality. It was good to be reminded of those who labor in the shadows of little recognition, but who deserve far greater appreciation. Sheila Jordan is surely one of them.
Topping off the evening was drummer Sherry Maricle and her all-woman quintet Five Play. When I first heard Maricle, perhaps fifteen years ago, her playing reminded me of Mel Lewis. Nowadays, if I had to suggest a drummer after whom she has patterned herself, it would be Buddy Rich. Maricle
is all about hard-driving energy and technique. Her band lit into a Horace Silver-sounding original to kick off the set. The tune showed the group’s strengths: tight, well-rehearsed ensembles, strong solos by the side persons and a kicking Maricle tying the chart together.
Five Play includes Janelle Reichman on tenor sax and clarinet. Reichman has a sound somewhat similar to Zoot Sims and abundant chops to handle fast tempos that reminded this listener of Sal Nistico. The trumpeter Jamie Dauber produced a bright, brassy sound and a plunger technique that would qualify her as a prime candidate for the Ellington band. Tomoko Ohno holds down the piano bench with strong chops and a two-handed solo style that emphasizes the bluesy aspects of a tune. The bassist Noriko Ueda plays firm time and her solos showed imagination and technique. An additional member of the cast is the Portuguese-born singer Marie Amadon, who impressed with her readings of “Old Devil Moon” and “Comes Love.”
Departing from her mostly up tempo choices, Maricle introduced a walking “Cry Me a River” that featured Janelle Reichman on clarinet. Reichman’s tone on the instrument is liquid and mellow, somewhat akin to that of Eddie Daniels, which is meant as a compliment. The evening came to a climax with a speed reading of the feminist anthem made famous by Helen Reddy, “I am Woman (Hear me Roar)”, taken at a tempo designed to separate the women from the girls. Everyone offered heated solos and Sherry Maricle rounded out the performance with a high-energy solo. The term “flag waver” came to mind as she had the audience on their feet – and not just to hustle to the exits.