[JPL] All hands on deck for a stirring tribute to jazz master Billy
drjazz at drjazz.com
Sun Nov 13 23:13:23 EST 2011
By Mike Joyce, Updated: Sunday, November 13, 6:06 PM
To borrow a title from his songbook, NEA Jazz Master Billy Taylor was
"Back Home" at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater on Friday night.
"This feels right," said trumpeter Terence Blanchard, hosting a sold-out
tribute to the late pianist, composer and educator. A Washington native,
Taylor died in December at 89, after serving as the Kennedy Center
artistic adviser for jazz for more than 15 years.
Thanks to pianist-musical director Geri Allen, the concert celebrated
Taylor's legacy with efficiency and taste, even when keyboardists
swarmed the stage. "It's a Grand Night for Swinging" found five pianists
--- Allen, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Cyrus Chestnut, Danilo Perez and
22-year-old Taylor protege Christian Sands --- sharing three pianos and
the same creative wavelength. A small miracle, given the largely
improvised coordination of "50 fingers," as Blanchard noted.
The cast wasn't short on vocalists, who referenced Taylor's affection
for jazz, blues, gospel and spirituals, displaying voices sublime (opera
soprano Harolyn Blackwell), sensuous (Carmen Lundy) and nimble (Howard
University vocal ensemble Afro Blue). "Peaceful Warrior," Taylor's
homage to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., inspired a richly textured
interlude, but nothing proved more stirring than Lundy's rendition of
"There Will Never Be Another You." Pianist Akiyoshi, who met Taylor in
the mid-'50s, struck a similarly elegiac chord with a solo recital of
her ballad "Farewell."
Complementing the music was a display of family photos --- vivid
reminders of his full life, as were the pieces he dedicated to his wife
("Theodora") and daughter ("Kim's Song"), who were present.
It's a shame that saxophonist Frank Wess, who grew up in the District
with Taylor, canceled his appearance because of health issues. The
lineup could have used a few veterans who shared the bandstand with
Taylor early in his career. For those who had the pleasure of hearing
Taylor perform with his trio --- an art that would trigger his high-beam
smile --- the return of bassist Chip Jackson and drummer Winard Harper
was welcome. Blanchard's soulful, bop-inflected horn enhanced the
performances of "One for the Woofer" and other small combo pieces, and
the tunes showcased Jackson's aggressive, witty attack and Harper's
wonderfully syncopated animation. In no time at all, they found their
Other highlights included an all-hands-on-deck arrangement of Taylor's
signature theme "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" and the
inspired pairing of Allen and Perez in "Can You Tell by Looking at Me?"
Near the end, Sands stood at a piano center stage. When he slowly put on
his glasses (Taylor was famous for his outsize eyewear), the crowd
erupted with laughter. Innumerable jazz veterans have helped pass the
jazz torch, but no one was more committed than Taylor to making sure the
flame would burn on.
The concert was part of the Kennedy Center's "Swing, Swing, Swing"
festival, which runs through Nov. 26.
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