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Maria Schneider.

Dee Dee Bridgewater was wearing a cowboy hat. If she explained this, I missed it.

Drummond, a flutist, began by duetting with bassist Brandi Disterheft on her original “Swing Thing,” then brought out her quartet (Klaus Mueller on piano, Mauricio Zotarelli on drums) for the Brazilian standard “Melancia.” The band has a clear division of labor. Disterheft is an extremely percussive bassist, her fingers striking the strings like hammers (a la Jimmy Blanton); Mueller’s piano playing is surprisingly flutelike and often doubled with Drummond (who herself took over piano for her piece “Elan”).

Drummond was a solid flute player, with excellent technique and musical logic on the undervalued-in-jazz instrument (and enough zeal that she could be heard humming along with herself); on the eighty-eights, she was perhaps even more interesting than Mueller, albeit with less skill. This critic would have liked to hear some less conventional note choices on the reed, but this critic is also a sucker for jazz flute and forgives the small stuff.

The winner of this year’s Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Competition, focused on piano, is Carmen Staaf. The prize? She gets to perform at the 2010 Festival, a banner year since it’s Williams’ centennial.

For better or worse, our fair city inspires performers to patriotism, but Lundy gets special credit for a lovely reharmonization of “America the Beautiful.” The rest of her songs were all from her own considerable catalog. The band were subdued for most of the set, perhaps to simply stay out of the way of the vocalist’s outsize personality; unfortunately, while the restraint of bassist Kenny Davis, drummer Steve Williams, and percussionist Mayra Casales helped in that regard, pianist Bill O’Connell came off as a cocktail-lounge pianist, throwing in the kinds of minor flourishes you might expect from Don Ho.

Thankfully, Lundy’s gifts as singer and composer more than made up the difference. Highlights were “Gossip,” inspired by Oprah Winfrey—-rhythmically oblong, melodically complex, and tremendously fun—-and the closing “All the Names Are God,” in which the whole band finally threw caution to the wind and played their asses off (especially Casales, with a fine conga solo).

Dee Dee lost the cowboy hat. “I took my hat off to my sister, Carmen Lundy!” she explained.

Schneider is a major figure, one whom critic Francis Davis has argued belongs in the top of the jazz composers’ pantheon with Ellington and her mentor Gil Evans. Her work at the close of the night only lends support to that argument. Harmonically rich and texturally painstaking, Schneider’s music is also loaded with tenderness, and her ensemble’s great strength is the beauty with which they reflect it.

So do the individuals: Nate Radley has a liquid guitar tone that pools into gorgeous melody; Ryan Keberle’s trombone is somehow both loud and languid; and Gary Versace‘s accordion is alien, yet deeply human. The arsenal’s greatest weapons, though, are undoubtedly pianist Frank Kimbrough and drummer Clarence Penn, neither of whom soloed and both of whom were the engines of each song.

Great performances included the opening “Concert in the Garden;” “Blue Skies,” featuring a sweet, sad, hopeful soprano sax by Steve Wilson; and the closing “Cerulean Skies,” a programmatic piece about the migration of birds that showcased the entire band and ascended into the sublime. Jazz fans who don’t know Schneider’s work are horribly, horribly deprived.

Next year’s Centennial festival will feature an all-woman band with Bridgewater, Esperanza Spalding, Teri Lyne Carrington, Geri Allen, and teenage phenomenon Grace Kelly performing Williams’ music. Hot damn.