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The spirit of Mary Lou Williams comes to life at the Kennedy Center

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While Mary Lou Williams gets plenty of lip service — the subject of biographies and documentaries, the namesake of nonprofits and university buildings — her actual music gets shorter shrift. The Kennedy Center’s Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival attempts every year to tackle that problem, but rarely so head-on as Allison Miller and Derrick Hodge’s Friday night tribute “Soul on Soul.”

Williams deserves the lip service. The late pianist and composer was a true genius, a relentless innovator who pioneered both swing and bebop, and contributed to several other jazz movements. Knowing that intellectually, though, is different from hearing the stark choral beauty of “St. Martin de Porres.” The piece (from Williams’ overlooked 1963 magnum opus, “Black Christ of the Andes”) was arranged for three voices, Michael Mayo, Alicia Olatuja and Johnaye Kendrick; and Hodges’ bowed bass. As they performed, you could have heard a pin drop. It was stately, sumptuous and deeply poignant.

And it was just the beginning. There followed a bracing mash-up of “A Fungus Amungus” and “Intermission,” with the dueling pianos of Carmen Staaf and Shamie Royston — both unsung talents themselves — clambering over each other. At times Royston would take off down melodic paths with Staaf playing chords; at times the roles would switch; at times they ran neck-and-neck. It was hard to tell what was written (both pianists had sheet music) and what was improvised. Miller’s fierce drumming gave them shape, though that shape often shifted, rumbled, and showed a surprising rock influence.

Except for that mash-up, the vocalists dominated the show. Olatuja locked in with Royston on a duo rendition of “The Blues,” each one-upping the other with suitable blues fervor. The trio kicked off “Medi II” with wordless vocals; Hodge (on electric) and Staaf both gave stunning solos before Mayo fired off one of his own.

But for all the superb music before us — and Miller and Hodge’s great leadership — Williams’ vision was front and center. Miller remarked that she had been “perpetually contemporary.” Yet it was the bassist who was most pertinent.

“Selflessness was required to dive into Mary Lou’s music,” Hodge remarked. “Each person up here owned that spirit: The spirit of who she was.” That’s as strong a review of the evening as anything this writer could say.

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