Renee Rosnes – the pianist and musical director of the all-female, all-star septet Woman to Woman – consistently has asserted that the group was not formed to make a political statement. At the same time, she has acknowledged that the group was properly labeled as feminist by virtue of its gender identity within the world of jazz, which remains, in no small measure, a male preserve.
So, when the band gathered for its New York debut at the 92nd Street Y on March 2 – six days, as it happened, before International Women’s Day at the United Nations – it was perhaps inevitable that, amid the present moment of women’s empowerment, feminism would provide subtext for what promised to be an epic night of music making by anyone’s standards.
From the get-go, independence was unabashedly celebrated – not least in the rollicking opening number, “Never Will I Marry.” Proclaiming the pleasures of a life unconstrained by the ultimate personal commitment (“No burden to bear/No conscience, no care”), singer Cécile McLorin Salvant sashayed through the Frank Loesser tune with a knowing defiance, building her case up to the closing line (“Born to wander ‘til I’m dead”) – one punctuated by trumpeter Ingrid Jensen’s pugnaciously telling growl.
Skepticism about romantic entanglement turned out to be a recurring theme – one expressed through a variety of vehicles, notable among them a gently pulsating “Portrait In Black And White.” Swaying to the intoxicating swirl of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Brazilian rhythms, courtesy of bassist Noriko Ueda and drummer Allison Miller, Salvant layered muted colors on the tune’s ample canvas, illuminating a lyric lament for the ages: “With just a word a marriage disappears.”
The exploration of relationships turned toward the dubious fate of part-time lovers with an animated “All Through The Night.” Salvant, who sang that Cole Porter tune in last year’s Jazz in July series at the Y, this time upped the ante, transforming an easy-going essay into a take-down rendered at breakneck speed. In it, Salvant’s velvet voice—cushioned by an aggressively legato front line consisting of Jensen, clarinetist Anat Cohen and saxophonist Melissa Aldana—radiated insouciance as it lingered atop the rhythm section’s tear.
As the concert unfolded and Cohen unleashed her solo horn, she revealed a coolly adaptable sense of syncopation, often playing off Salvant’s idiosyncratic phrasing, gesture for gesture. A sudden Salvant slide into the depths of the lower register typically found Cohen making an equally sudden intervallic leap, offering a witheringly mocking glissando or some similarly dismissive move. All of which, in the context of the evening’s feminist themes, struck a playfully subversive note.
The sense of play continued when Salvant left the stage and Cohen’s solidarity with Rosnes moved to the fore. On Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz,” Cohen gave full voice to her whimsical side, her fingers aflutter as they moved. Rosnes, likewise, was at her most spirited, musing on a quote from “Willow Weep For Me” in the keyboard’s lower half before migrating toward the upper register, where she fashioned a series of pointillistic figures that recalled Waller himself.
On another waltz, Burt Bacharach’s and Hal David’s “What The World Needs Now” – which Rosnes, in her lone comment on current events, declared “appropriate to the times we’re living in” – Cohen was at her most discursive, mirroring Rosnes, whose expansive reharmonizations echoed those on McCoy Tyner’s version of the tune, the title track of his 1997 album of Bacharach’s music.
The invoking of Bacharach-David highlighted a missing component of the concert: explicit commentary. For all its implicit critiques of gender affairs, the band had chosen not to draw on unambiguously sexist material like “Wives And Lovers,” the writing team’s 1963 ode to subservience. The absence of the piece was conspicuous in that Salvant has, both in concert and on record, given its lyrics a scathing ride—even as she afforded its music respect.
The omission was offset by the inclusion of music by Carla Bley, the 81-year-old dean of jazz composers. In a concert high point, Jensen, backed by Rosnes and Ueda, directed her trumpet toward the piano’s soundboard, producing an otherworldly resonance on Bley’s “Lawns” that became a signature moment. Segueing into Duke Ellington’s “Solitude,” the moment proved to be the most haunting of the evening.
But the most intense moments of collective power arose with the full ensemble in deep-groove mode. And on no tune did they dig more deeply than Porter’s “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.” With the band operating at full tilt, Salvant mined the maximum dramatic content from every last syllable until slowly, inexorably, the sound dissolved around her. Amid the fadeout, Cohen could be heard to whisper, “Yeah.”