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Dee Dee Bridgewater.

HAILEY NISWANGER Winner of last year’s Women in Jazz Festival Competition, Hailey Niswanger is an alto saxophonist—-19 years old and a student at Berklee. She thus walks a fine line: How much do you criticize a kid who’s still learning the basics? Is her position one where criticism is more important or more irrelevant than it’ll ever be again?

But it turns out there’s not much to criticize. Niswanger is a gifted and very skilled saxophonist who’s working to develop her own sound. Her tone is hard as sheet metal, but with a softer, piccolo-like whine at the edges; in soloing, she’s awfully reliant on bebop devices, but that’s to be expected from a young student. She audibly strives to break out of them when she can, and it helps that Niswanger chooses quirky tunes like Monk‘s “Four in One” and Kenny Dorham‘s “Page One,” along with a neat original blues called “Confeddie.” The only substantive critique to make is that she seems afraid to leave spaces in her solos—-a sign of insecurity—-but that, too, will dissolve as she develops. This kid’s got a very bright future.

INTERLUDE The Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Award for lifetime achievement is given to Sherrie Maricle, drummer and leader of the band Diva:

“Wow. I’m not usually speechless but this time I am.”

(cue seven pause-free minutes of talking)

“So I wasn’t so speechless after all!”

ANNETTE AGUILAR & STRINGBEAN Wow!

Upon introduction, Annette A. Aguilar sat behind her army of congas and began playing fiercely while the seven other members of Stringbean slowly filled in around her. The minute the stage was full, Each one took up a percussive instrument and began a polyrhythmic explosion. That was the recurring theme of Aguilar’s set: they would play two or three pieces from Brazil or Cuba, then return to a purely percussive framework . The results were spectacular, with the show’s midpoint—-which Aguilar called “Bean Dip”—-as the highlight.

On more melodic pieces, the results were almost as good. The combo of vocals, violin, harp, piano, bass, and drums was exotic and beautiful; Ellen Uryevick Adams‘s harp and Nicki Denner‘s piano meshed in unexpected ways, and Rob Thomas‘s violin frequently went in unison with lead singer Sofia Rei Koutsovitis. But it was probably inevitable that these sounds would often get lost in the warehouse of percussion surrounding them, especially on the Brazilian Bahia tune “Bebe” and Ray Baretto‘s salsa “Indestructible” (although Aguilar’s switch to marimbas saved the melodic line on the latter). Still, it was splendid.

DEE DEE BRIDGEWATER Bridgewater is also the host for this year’s festival, intro- and outro-ing every artist and inserting lively banter in between. (Thursday’s highlight: “From here, Anat Cohen travels to Idaho, where they grow all those potatoes, and Juneau, Alaska…where teenage girls get pregnant.”) So the audience knew what a ham she was. But her stage act was still a bit surprising. She wore a loose-fitting, backless dress, and when she began dancing fiercely during her opening “Afro Blue” it several times threatened a Janet Jackson reprise, but that may have been tame next to her downright erotic routine against her stool during Nina Simone‘s “Four Women.” Suffice to say she might have oversold the material a bit.

Even if it wasn’t so family-friendly, though, Bridgewater’s set was wondrous. She is a truly great singer with an astonishing stylistic range; a ballad delivery of “Footprints” was followed by an excellent Billie Holiday impression on “Good Morning Heartache,” which was followed by awesome ’60s-soul fire on “Compared to What.” Credit goes as well to the extraordinarily tight band: pianist Edsel Gomez, bassist Ira Coleman, drummer Vince Cherico, and percussionist Luisito Quintero were in fine form and worked brilliantly together without ever overpowering Bridgewater. If she had taken a sedative beforehand the set might have been perfect.