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Ethel’s Place: Ethel Ennis and Larry Willis at the Eubie Blake Jazz Center, May 9

May 10, 2010

Sunday’s Mother’s Day concert at the Eubie Blake Jazz Center was a tribute not just to the maternal figures in the audience but also to two legendary Baltimore jazz venues.

Because it was a Sunday, late-afternoon show with cloth-covered tables and a soul-food stand in the back, the event reminded everyone over the age of 50 of similar shows presented by the Left Bank Jazz Society in the 1970s at the Famous Ballroom (now the second-floor projection room at the Charles Theatre). Because the headliner at the Eubie Blake was Ethel Ennis, the show also recalled her namesake club, Ethel’s Place, which in the mid-‘80s occupied the corner later taken over by Spike & Charlie’s restaurant.

Her modest Afro may be snowy now, but Ennis was the same charismatic entertainer she’s always been. Dressed to be noticed in an orange-and-yellow poncho and bright red slacks, her big soprano was still in great shape, even at age 77. She began her second set with the ballad standard “But Beautiful,” and on the third verse she did a dead-on impersonation of Baltimore’s most famous jazz singer, Billie Holiday. When Ennis returned to her natural voice, she demonstrated how much bigger and fuller it is.

Ennis employed such showmanship throughout the show. When she sang George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” she interpolated the cries of Baltimore’s watermelon-selling arabbers and sang most of the song over the central vamp from Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” She leaned on the double entendres in Bessie Smith’s “Empty Bed Blues” and on another blues, “Brother Bill,” she even danced a bit of the Madison. But when she sang Al Jolson’s “My Mother’s Eyes,” she did it laid back but straight, paying tribute to both motherhood and melody.

Ennis was backed by the Larry Willis Trio, which also played two sets of its own. Willis, a New York pianist who has recorded with everyone from Freddie Hubbard to Roy Hargrove, has been a Maryland resident since 1989 and a Baltimore resident since 2007. Backed by bassist Steve Novosel and drummer Eric Kennedy, the keyboardist made the audience remember all the times Horace Silver played the Famous Ballroom, for Willis had the same knack for ear-grabbing themes and leg-grabbing grooves. When the trio turned to Willis’ own compositions, such as “Ethiopia” and “To Wisdom the Prize,” the dramatic swings between the quiet introductions and Kennedy’s climactic outbursts, between the pianist’s murmuring melodies and dense, two-handed harmonies, provided the evening’s highlights.

Opening the show was the Darius Jones Quintet, a green but promising group of Towson University freshmen. They played a respectable set of Wyntonesque retro-jazz.

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