[JPL] All hands on deck for a stirring tribute to jazz master Billy Taylor

Dr. Jazz 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 
groove again.

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.

Dr. Jazz
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