Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival: Live Last Night

Live Last Night

Usually when a young musician galvanizes the audience at the Kennedy Center's Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival it marks a career breakthrough. But the standing ovation accorded bassist-vocalist Esperanza Spalding at the Terrace Theater on Thursday night was pretty much a foregone conclusion. With a best-selling debut album out - and two performances at the White House already under her belt- the 25 year-old phenom was easily the most anticipated artist to appear on the festival's opening night.

Singing is as natural as breathing for Spalding, and she's not the least bit shy when it comes to demonstrating her remarkable vocal range and agility, as her quartet's fanciful rendering of "Body and Soul" illustrated. Whether performing a standard or an original tune, she enjoys placing her voice in highly stylized settings that bridge pop and jazz tastes. Her performances on upright acoustic bass, however, were more impressive, marked by sleek and supple lines and knotty improvisations. Describing herself as "a young gal in yellow high heels," Spalding closed her set by inviting the audience to sing along with her, but once she let her voice soar into a spiraling scat orbit, there was little chance of that.

(Read the rest of the review after the jump.)

Warmly hosted by singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, the festival then shifted into high gear, with the arrival of Anat Cohen and The Anzic Orchestra. While the ensemble's instrumentation, which includes three cellos, is enough to set it apart, what stood out most was the combination of Cohen's fluid virtuosity (on clarinet and tenor sax) and a series of delightfully engaging arrangements that embraced swing rhythms and Pan American grooves. Indeed, the evening's sunniest highlight found the orchestra imaginatively juxataposing Luis Bonfa's pulsating "Samba de Orfeu" with a joyously orchestrated rendering of Louis Armstrong's "Struttin' With Some Barbecue."

Presenting three hour-long sets on a weeknight has always been problematic for the 14-year-old festival. Much of the capacity crowd had headed home by the time singer Janis Siegel was half way through the evening's finale. To her credit, though, Siegel appeared unfazed. Best known for her ongoing association with Mahattan Transfer, she turned in an enjoyable but clearly anti-climatic small combo performance distinguished by a dreamy rendition of "Midnight Sun" and pianist Edsel Gomez's Afro-Caribbean propulsion.

The festival continues with performances on Friday and Saturday night.

--MIKE JOYCE

By David Malitz |  May 15, 2009; 5:14 PM ET Live Last Night
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Is this supposed to be a "review", containing at least an accurate description of events, or is it a just a public relations piece for Ms. Spauding?: "The standing ovation ...was pretty much a foregone conclusion";"easily the most anticipated artist to appear" (not by me or anyone I know. How do you know this? Did you conduct a poll?). My recollections of the evening include people, screaming, whistling and applauding wildly at several points during Ms. Cohen's performance and the entire audience exploding out of their seats when she finished (no mention of either by you). Everyone has their "favorites", a good thing, but some perspective is in order...no? Sheesh.

Posted by: parttimesaint | May 15, 2009 7:00 PM

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