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Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival Enjoys 12th Year

Now in its twelfth year, the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival continues to showcase some fine women musicians. The evening I caught this year--there were only tickets available for Thursday's performance--also brought into focus some issues that still plague jazz, however. One, ironically, is the continuing gender gap within the music. For the first of the three shows the headline artists presented were certainly women, but they were the only women seen on the stage. The other ten musicians were all male. Notwithstanding the all-female Ann Patterson's Maiden Voyage who appeared on Saturday, the same pattern was repeated throughout the festival, as it has done in previous years. Secondly, the Thursday evening line up raised commercial as well as musical questions. What does it take to put people in seats at the Kennedy Center? And what does this tell us about the pecking order for male as well as female artists seeking exposure at major jazz events?

First the music, however. And the first set on Thursday set the bar pretty high. Pianist Lynne Arriale has been attracting a good deal of attention of late, and after hearing her for the first time I can understand why. When the New York Times speaks of her "brilliant musicianship and bandstand instincts," it comes close to getting to the essence of her success. She is first and foremost a stylist in the finest piano jazz tradition: touch, technique, ideas, swing, incisive lines, lovely voicings--it's all there. And she has added her unique voice to all this, both through her reworking of pop standards and with her own writing which while very much in the jazz tradition, has a strong folk element. So far Lynne has emphasized the piano trio format, which she has brought to a high level through her almost telepathic interaction with bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Steve Davis. This was very much in evidence as she opened her set with a gently de-constructed "What is this thing called Love?" and continued with some originals: "Dreams,"a lovely, indeed dreamy, ballad, and "Esparanza" that combined a fiery Latin feeling with Arriale's characteristic lucid elegance. Jazz classics were represented with a suitably spiky "I Mean You" and a breakneck " 7 Steps to Heaven." It was a stunning performance that deftly walked the tightrope between artistic integrity and popular comprehensibility. Anderson and Davis accompanied her with great skill and sensitivity, stepping forward for solo spots in just the right measure. Above all, the sound was well balanced and the volume level well under control.

I would certainly not like to have followed a set of this quality. Violinist Karen Briggs managed it by storming in from a completely different angle. It was said of the Bolshoi Ballet that it was "not what they did but the ardor with which they did it." So it is with Briggs. Her concept is basically a simple one, but it is delivered with great intensity, spirit and warmth. All of this is long on showmanship, but, at times, short on musicality, however. This is not to deny her technical ability; she is all over the violin, just as her cohorts Brandon Coleman and Sekou Bunch were all over the piano and electric bass respectively, while drummer Cedric Anderson and percussionist Munyungo Jackson kept the excitement level high throughout. (Anderson's solo cum dance routine was one of the highlights of the set.) But the volume level, while not as totally excessive as some groups I have caught--actually walked out on--recently was such that dynamics, shading, clarity--aspects of musicality other than speed and excitement tended to get lost in the mix. The vehicles chosen were straightforward, modal tunes--Freddie Hubbard's "Little Sunflower," Miles Davis' "Milestones"--this is not a group to run chord changes. These were followed by Briggs' version of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherezade" which was beyond genre, even if it momentarily revealed her classical training. Beginning with the work's solo violin opening, this version veered away from Romanticism into funk, with a particularly rousing stop-time section and some Middle Eastern sounding pizzicato. The grand finale, "Amazing Grace," was R & B via Yanni with touches of soul and gospel. This is what puts rear ends in seats and it was met with a standing ovation. The question of whether this is truly jazz, however, was lost in the general enthusiasm. It was a high-energy, bow-shredding performance by a very popular artist. And it was a lot of fun. But it left me with some questions.

The final set was something of a disappointment, but not for mainly musical reasons. I had been looking forward to seeing Flora Purim and Airto Moreira since I last saw them twenty years ago. They have been at the forefront of Brazilian jazz since the 1960s, with dozens of recordings and numerous awards to their credit, including two Grammy nominations, and four Best Female Jazz Vocalist awards--for Flora--from Down Beat, while the magazine virtually invented the percussion category for Airto before he won it twenty times in a row. And, as I have learned from my brief dealings with them, as individuals they are all-round class acts. On this occasion, however, I don't think they were heard at their best.

Primarily, this was due to poor planning on the part of the Kennedy Canter, or perhaps to circumstances beyond their control. Whatever the cause, the changeover times between sets took longer than planned, and by the time Flora and Airto came onto the stage it was already past the time the concert was due to end. Given that it was a Thursday evening, well over half of the audience got up and left after a few minutes. This must be demoralizing, even for the most hardened professionals, and there was a sense that, to some extent at least, the artists were going through the motions. Either that, or my sense of embarrassment for them colored my perception of the situation. It was still a fine set, even if it took a little while to get going, featuring songs going back as far as Light As A Feather for "500 Miles High" and following it with a series of pieces from subsequent albums.

This is indeed Brazilian jazz, if not what is often understood by this term. Best known is the sophisticated, urbane, lyrical Bossa Nova, of Jobim and Bonfa, Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto, and the girl from Ipanima beach. But there are many facets to Brazilian music, and at another extreme there is a much more raw, elemental, intensely rhythmic aspect exemplified by Hermeto Pascoal, for example, with whom Airto and Flora have worked on several occasions. For their own music, they draw on this aspect of Brazilian tradition as well as the experience of working with a wide range of jazz artists--they were both in the original Return to Forever with Chick Corea, while Airto was a member of the very first Weather Report.

This is a double-edged sword, however. Airto, who was playing primarily drum set, is a wonderful player, full of snap, crackle and pop. It does set a certain basic volume level, however, for the rest of the band and by the time we have added keys, guitar and bass--in this case Marcos Silva, Grecco Buratto and Gary Brown, respectively--there is not much dynamic variety left for a vocalist. I know that Flora likes to convey a message with her songs, but with most of the lyrics in Portuguese, there was both a volume and a language barrier to her conveying her cherished meanings. "Few can match the sheer beauty of her voice," according to USA Today, and that is my impression from her recordings, such as the wonderful Two Way Mirror. It was hard to hear the richness of her voice at this volume level, however. There was a certainly a stark beauty to some of the pieces which I appreciated--I particularly loved one waltz and what appeared to be a Portuguese slow blues--but I longed for an acoustic interlude, however brief, with Buratto perhaps on nylon string guitar rather than his heavy-metal sound, and Airto on hand percussion. But it was not to be. I could not complain, there was much to enjoy, and Flora's almost beatific stage presence was captivating in itself. It was only afterwards that my crusade against excessive volume levels kicked in. "90 percent of jazz is too loud," a famous jazz guitarist recently told me. I think he is right. The heartfelt thanks to the sound crew from Flora at the end of her set makes me wonder if what they were hearing from the stage monitors was what I was hearing from the twelfth row.

A more pressing concern as I left the Kennedy Center that evening came after I read in the program that each of the artists had appeared before at the Mary Lou Williams festival--Briggs on two occasions. Are there no more female jazz artists deserving this exposure? I can thing of several. Or are they playing safe to put rear ends in seats? Perhaps my view would have changed if I had caught the other shows, which included some exciting new faces such as Anat Cohen. But the tickets were sold. I guess that's the main thing.

Illustration, from left to right: Flora Purim, Lynne Arriale, Karen Briggs

[Note: Lynne Arriale is at: www.lynnearriale.com, Flora Purim at: www.florapurim.com, Karen Briggs at: http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendID =100267197]

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Lynne Arriale, Karen Briggs, Flora Purim
  • Concert Date: 5/10/2007
  • Subtitle: First Evening Uneven But With Definite High Spots
  • Venue: Terrace Theater, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
  • City State Country: Washington D.C.
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