Miller, Bunnett, Carrington Bring Flair to Mary Lou Williams Festival


The Mary Lou Williams Festival in Washington, D.C., honors the late singer and pianist, pictured here, who died in 1981.

(Photo: DownBeat Archives)

“A drum is a woman” could have easily served as the subtitle for the second night of the 21st annual Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival (May 14) at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center. The event placed a high premium on rhythm by showcasing two astounding drummer/bandleaders—Allison Miller and Terri Lyne Carrington. In between the two was soprano saxophonist, flutist and composer Jane Bunnett, whose all-female Cuban combo, Maqueque, brought plenty of rhythmic bristle, too.

It was to the festival’s credit that all three leaders brought something unique, which gave the soiree a wide stylistic breadth. Miller’s fascinating band, Boom Tic Boom, kicked off the festivities with an hourlong program that focused on music from her latest disc, Otis Was A Polar Bear. The group was ending a short tour, and one could hear just how road-tested the material was. Their rapport was spectacular. Miller displayed superlative use of poise, dynamics and spatial awareness as she engaged her cohorts with such engrossing originals as the pecking and pointillistic “High T” and the bluesy, sometimes elegiac “The Listener (For Josh Cantor).”

Much of the joy from Miller’s set came from her compositions, which deftly juxtaposed wry humor and tremendous heart. Her prismatic material unfolded in a way that kept listeners guessing as to what was coming next, yet there was always a cohesive cogency at play.

As a drummer, Miller can certainly rile things up with combustive thrust, but she employed her reserves wisely by dialoguing with each member during their respective solos and underscoring them with flinty rhythmic colors and textures. She was also clever at implying various genres—ranging from blues to ska to pop to Afro-Cuban to funk to swing—while pushing the material forward alongside bassist Todd Sickafoose.

Definitely a gracious bandleader, Miller delivered material urbane enough to convey a savvy musical thinker, but open enough to give the spotlight to each member. Such was the case with the folkloric “Fuster,” which became an ideal vehicle for Ben Goldberg to show his dexterity on the clarinet, and the aquatic “Shimmer,” on which violinist Jenny Scheinman played a brief, evocative solo brimming with silvery textures.

Trumpeter Kirk Knuffke displayed his fluid improvisations and deft uses of smears and textures on the brooding ballad “Slow Jam,” which Miller dedicated to the memory of Prince, one of her earliest role models. And Myra Melford reminded listeners why she’s considered one of the most dynamic pianists on the modern jazz scene by superbly tackling explosive avant-garde passages on the daffy “Hoarding The Pod,” then pulling the heartstrings on the gorgeous dirge “The Listener.”

Miller’s bewitching set gave way to Bunnett’s iridescent foray into modern Afro-Cuban music. Magdelys Savigne and Yissy Garcia powered the group with polyrhythmic fire, funk and finesse on batá, conga and trap drums, while Celia Jimenez provided more propulsive force on electric bass.

Because of subpar mixing, the music sounded muddy in spots, nearly drowing out Bunnett’s delicate passages on flute and soprano, especially when she ran them in unison with vocalist Melvis Santa Estévez. It was also difficult to hear the finer nuances of Dánae Olano’s virtuosic piano playing. Nevertheless, the strong material, virtuosic brio and bracing accord within the group more than made up for the sonic blemishes.

The group captivated from the get-go on the Bunnett original “Maqueque,” on which the luring melody suddenly gave way to a danceable digression.

Bunnett’s intoxicating blend of seductive melodies, infectious rhythms and soaring vocal harmonies delighted the audience throughout her set, particularly on the soulful “Papineau,” “Tormenta” and “Alma De Santiago.” The ensemble’s most moving moment occurred during the mesmerizing Afro-Cuban makeover of Bill Withers’ signature tune, “Ain’t No Sunshine (When She’s Gone),” on which several members traded lead vocals.

Carrington closed the festival with an updated edition of her remarkable Mosaic Project. As she did on her latest disc, The Mosaic Project: Love And Soul, she veered more toward soul-jazz. And unlike the lineup on that album and the previous recording, she didn’t front an all-female combo.

In addition to Carrington’s snapping rhythmic jabs and lattice-like improvisations, alto saxophonist Tia Fuller proved to be the ensemble’s other noteworthy sparkplug. Her diamond-hard tone and angular phrasing energized originals such as Carrington’s forceful “Mosaic Triad” and the beautiful Geri Allen-penned composition “Unconditional Love.” Ingrid Jensen’s buttery tone on trumpet and fluid lines offered the ideal counterpart, as did Matthew Stevens’ cobalt-hued guitar chords and occasional melodic bursts.

Carrington also featured newcomer Aaron Liao on bass. He proved worthy of the challenge of propelling the ensemble and keeping pace with Carrington’s jostling, highly interactive rhythms.

Carrington paid tribute the late Natalie Cole, who appeared on The Mosaic Project: Love And Soul, by inviting the Mary Lou Williams Festival’s host, Dee Dee Bridgewater, to sing Carrington’s inventive, almost drum-n-bass makeover of Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” (Cole sang it on the aforementioned disc).

Phenomenal soul-pop singer Oleta Adams also made two fantastic guest appearances in the set. Her warm alto and emotive phrasing brought the house down on a reading of Billie Holiday’s “Lover Man.” Adams then took over on acoustic piano in place of Amy Bellamy (who moved over to Fender Rhodes) on the anthemic “I Got A Right,” whose declarative melody and charging momentum had echoes of Nina Simone.

Carrington brought the focus back to instrumental jazz with a sparkling take on Charlie Parker’s fast-paced bebop gem “Sippin’ At Bells,” which allowed each member of her band to flex their musical muscles.

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