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Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

The jazz program has been especially rich at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts this season. As befits a national institution, the center aims to honor jazz masters while also supporting younger musicians and new music. A case in point is the flurry of visitors during the last month.

February 9th, for example, saw bassist/composer Dave Holland bring his new sextet to the Terrace Theater. This ensemble is a mixture of old and new for Holland, with Robin Eubanks a holdover on trombone, while altoist Antonio Hart and trumpeter Alex Sipiagin are members of Holland's big band, (as is Eubanks.) The major changes in the sextet involve the rhythm section. A major part of the Dave Holland sound for several years has been the tight drumming of Billy Killson and the open, percussive sound of Steve Nelson's vibes and marimba. For the new sextet, Killson has been replaced by Eric Harland and Nelson's vibes have been replaced by Mulgrew Miller on piano. As before, the selections consisted of Holland's original compositions, with their characteristic post-bop coloration and occasionally ambiguous meters. The difference with this version of the sextet comes from the fuller sound of Miller's piano and the slightly rougher edge of Harland's drumming. His driving playing seemed to be inspiring the soloists, all of whom are top class and always interesting. And Miller is an accomplished pianist to say the least. Personally, however, I enjoyed the vibes-centered sound of the previous ensembles and Harland is a tad too loud for my taste. But, as I have noted before, many jazz players enjoy drummers who play too loud; Philly Joe Jones with Miles Davis is a prime example. It is often bass players who suffer, but judging from Holland's smile he is happy with Harland's contribution, so I look forward to their next performance and/or recording to see if I can get used to the new sound. It is a small point; everything Holland does is of the highest quality.

It is a measure of Miller's breadth as soloist and accompanist that he is able to work with such a wide range of artists. As well as working with Holland, I heard him at the Kennedy Center's KC Jazz Club with Lew Tabackin's quartet last year, and March 11th he was able to step in at short notice to replace Hank Jones when sickness prevented the NEA Jazz Master from fulfilling a date at the Terrace Theater. These are big shoes to fill but Miller never missed a beat.

The evening was part of a bow to jazz masters which began with an evening of awards to a dazzling array of the music's most seasoned contributors. The Living Jazz Legend Awards was part of the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation Series for Artistic Excellence, and presented at an evening dubbed the Jazz in Our Time Celebration. Thirty-three artists honored this evening were, count them: Clark Terry, Frank Foster, Curtis Fuller, Dr. Billy Taylor, Jimmy Scott, Louie Bellson, Marian McPartland, Donald Byrd, James Moody, Jimmy Heath, Barry Harris, Nancy Wilson, Benny Golson, Ornette Coleman, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Chick Corea, Phil Woods, Chico Hamilton, Buddy DeFranco, George Russell, Freddie Hubbard, Gerald Wilson, Frank Wess, Dame Cleo Laine, Al Jarreau, Jon Hendricks, Ahmad Jamal, Dave Brubeck, Wynton Marsalis, David Baker, Paquito D'Rivera, Sir John Dankworth, and Michel Legrand. (A commemorative group photograph can be obtained from the Kennedy Center gift shop at: www.kennedy-center.org/giftshop/html)

The celebrations continued with Marian McParland's 89th birthday celebration the following evening, with Dr. Billy Taylor as the surprise guest. An evening with Ahmad Jamal followed March 9th, with his guests, trumpeter Donald Byrd and tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath. The final evening of this sequence did not quite work out as planned. The original intention was to feature Jones accompanied by George Mraz on bass and Miles Davis veteran Jimmy Cobb on drums, plus vocalist Roberta Gambarini and two other special guests, altoist/clarinetist Paquita D'Rivera and trumpeter Clark Terry. Unfortunately, not only was Jones indisposed but Terry had some kind of scheduling conflict. Happily, a fine stand-in was available in the person of tenorist/flutist Frank Wess, who was one of the recent award recipients the previous weekend and is also a newly appointed NEA Jazz Master, correcting an oversight I mentioned in my review of Hank and Frank, his recording with Hank Jones. It is ironic that Frank missed Hank so that they could reprise parts of that recording, but, in spite of that, it was a totally enjoyable evening.

With Paquito taking on MC chores with his usual lively sense of humor, the group members took turns in the spotlight. The quintet opened with "Billie's Bounce," featuring Paquito on clarinet and Wess playing tenor. Frank then picked up his flute to be featured on his own composition "Sumpin' Went Wrong," taken at a bright tempo, followed by a ballad treatment on tenor of "A Time For Love." Even though he walks with a cane these days, Frank looks stronger than he did last time I saw him with Flutology at the JC Jazz Club and, more to the point, sounds as good as ever on both his horns, his flute nimble and full-toned, his tenor a refreshing glimpse of Lester Young in a scene awash with Coltrane clones.

It was at this point that Miller was featured, with a brisk reading of "Yardbird Suite." He was followed by Paquito on clarinet, playing an original dedicated to Dizzy Gillespie, "I Remember Dizzy," a bossa nova with thinly veiled references to "Night in Tunisia." Paquito's solo was followed by an extraordinary cadenza, full of both virtuosity and humor, and replete with multiple references to Gillespie compositions. (I was struck by the audience's immediate response of "Salt Peanuts" to that theme's appearance. A Kennedy Center audience is hipper than we might imagine!) Like Leonard Feather, many critics credit Eddie Daniels, who appeared earlier in the week on the Millenium Stage, with ". . . reinvent[ing] an instrument [and] bringing it to a new stage of revolution," referring, of course, to the clarinet. This is true except that it overlooks Paquito who has also made a huge contribution to the revival of that difficult instrument in jazz. (As for me, I put my clarinet up for sale first thing Monday morning!)

Next up was Mraz who demonstrated his taste, technique and faultless intonation on an unnamed feature. Then it was the turn of Roberta Gambarini. She has been called the new Sara, or the new Ella. I'm not sure if this is justified but she is certainly a wonderful singer. It was noticeable, for example, that she needed no instrumental introduction to come in exactly on pitch, for an up-tempo "Chega de Suadade" or a languid, delicate "Poor Butterfly," or when scatting with the horn players on "When Lights Are Low," or their encore, Joe Newman's "Midgets" on which she acted as a front-line horn player. Her recent Grammy nomination is in recognition for these accomplishments.

Jimmy Cobb did not have a solo feature, other than trading fours on a couple of selections. But he demonstrated his command of the drum chair by subtly adjusting to what was a stylistically diverse group of musicians brought together by the highest level of musicianship. It was a fitting conclusion to this sequence of tributes to the masters of jazz performance.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Various Artists
  • Concert Date: Feb-March 2007
  • Venue: Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
  • City State Country: Washington D.C.
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