Review by J Hunter
This is the year of Wynton Marsalis… or the 50th year of Wynton Marsalis, to be precise. As a result, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is celebrating what was described in Monday night’s introduction as “the longest-running 50th birthday party EVER!” There’s no word on whether they’ll try to break the record set by Jack Benny’s 39th birthday party, but I digress. Marsalis spent this chapter of the party doing what he loves: Playing jazz from his favorite period, in the way he feels it should be played, and doing it with some big-time monsters from the New York scene.
Marsalis shares the marquee with the Orchestra, and why not? Jazz at Lincoln Center is his baby, built by his hands into a perfect vehicle for the global jazz ambassadorship he aspires to. But although Marsalis emceed the two-set show, he was not out front running the show like his co-muse Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington. Instead, he filed onto the back riser with the rest of the trumpets as the Orchestra entered from both sides of the stage. This wasn’t just a theatrical trick: JLCO is fifteen players strong, so only bringing them out one door would be akin to having all the clowns in the car only come out of the sunroof – it may be funny, but it takes TIME!
There was nothing funny about the punch the Orchestra threw on the complex opening of Jackie McLean’s “Appointment in Ghana.” Forget “big band” – this was more like “towering band”, with a sound and fury that made your eyes pop, combined with a unity and discipline that military drill teams only dream about. JLCO found the swinging melody and took off like a rocket as Marsalis soloed from his seat, unmuted and unmatched. I’ve got major problems with Wynton, but not as a player. I’ve called him one of the best musicians of my generation, and that opinion didn’t change one whit as he aimed for the top of the Hall and fired off a string of peerless ideas that made you think, “That’s the way to do it!” As the Orchestra began to comp and fill underneath Marsalis, you could see some of the members try to loosen as much clothing as they could. The Hall is known for many things, but its ventilation system is not one of them, and the jam-packed venue was an oven before the show had even started.
Like Ellington with his orchestra, Marsalis doesn’t have to do all the heavy lifting in JLCO. He’s got people for that: People like Sherman Irby, who made an alto sax look like a toy as he blew us away on Lou Donaldson’s “Blues Walk”; people like multi-instrumentalist Walter Blanding, whose tenor solo on Wayne Shorter’s “Free For All” was dead-solid perfect; people like trumpeters Marcus Printup and Ryan Kisor, two former young lions who really swung for the fences on “Free” and Lee Morgan’s “Sea Aura,” respectively; people like Ted Nash, creator of the divine samba arrangement for “Aura,” and whose alto flute solo on Marsalis’ arrangement of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” was both hilarious and horrifying; and people like longtime Marsalis drummer Ali Jackson, the turbo-charger of this big engine, who was literally the conductor on the work-song-influenced “The Caboose”, the last movement of Marsalis’ suite “Big Train.”
The latter tune gave the Orchestra a chance to display some old-time effects, as they stomped and blew to simulate aspects of a freight train rolling through the town. You could easily see the Ellington band doing that – which sums up my #1 issue with JLCO. Almost every piece of music is seen through an Ellingtonian eye, from the two Marsalis originals (“Jump,” from the Twyla Tharp dance suite “Jump Start,” was the other one) to Marsalis’ arrangement of “Ghana,” which could have passed for an undiscovered outtake from one of Ellington’s late-career suites. This actually limits a unit that – from both a theoretical and creative standpoint – should have no boundaries at all. Marsalis’ arrangement of “Free for All” may be a great technical accomplishment, but arranging an Art Blakey tune for big band is like strapping solid rocket boosters to a Ferrari Daytona: It’s just… not… necessary! Thankfully, bassist Carlos Enriquez’s take on Horace Silver’s “Senor Blues” showed due deference to the original while adding delightful new twists via Victor Goines’ joyous soprano sax solo and the trombone section taking the lead on the melody.
At the end of the day, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is what it is: A bastion of all things “trad” jazz, performing with a love and dedication that brings wide smiles to the faces of like-minded fans, of which there were many at the Hall on this evening. The Orchestra is a not just a great big band (if not “the greatest big band in the world,” as it was introduced), it’s also a terrific “gateway band” for the uninitiated who only see jazz as something unavailable on mainstream radio, and only know Wynton Marsalis from his Movado magazine ads. I urge anyone who wants a primer built by musicians from this era to check them out. Just go easy on the Kool-Aid. For one thing, it can rot your teeth.
Michael Janairo’s review at The Times Union
Excerpt from David Singer’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Marsalis ran the show from his back row spot as lead trumpeter. We didn’t hear much of him on solo. In fact, we heard more solo work from other band members, but this was no loss, given the quality players in the group and the fun of hearing different soloists among the 15 band members, each who got a shot. We did get a lot of Marsalis egging on his players with a ‘yeah’ and ‘all right’ between phrases. The highlight of the first half was a Lou Donaldson slow blues arranged by band member Sherman Irby, who gave us the first exciting solo of the night. Irby is a big fella with a gentle touch to his sax sound that eventually rose to large, robust blowing. Chris Crenshaw followed with a sad, sweet, muted trombone solo that he pieced together like a full story. Marsalis finally worked his lips at the start of the second set during his original ‘Jump.’ This was the first time the band punched hard. After Marsalis’ solo, they swung, all of them pushing it together finally. It’s an electrifying band in the spirit of the traditional swing bands, and here we heard clearly Marsalis’ affinity for old-school swing. And while he can be criticized for not advancing the genre, leaning too much on the past, it seems when he leaned hardest Monday night is when the group was the most innovative.”
JAZZ AT LINCOLN CENTER ORCHESTRA with WYNTON MARSALIS SET LIST
Appointment in Ghana
Free for All
Itsy Bitsy Spider
Embraceable You (quartet feat. Wynton, Jackson, Enriquez and pianist Dan Nimmer)