A Visitor From the West Takes Charge of the Band

Posted on February 27th, 2006 in Review | Tags: gerald wilson, jazz at lincoln center, jazz at lincoln center orchestra, new york times

The concert’s first part had been history-rich, admirably nondogmatic and, as performance, a little dry. Led by Wynton Marsalis, it ranged from the heavy-gauge work of auteurish bandleaders like Stan Kenton and Charles Mingus to film-industry jobs (Henry Mancini’s theme to “The Pink Panther,” with the warm, fat-toned tenor saxophonist Plas Johnson, who recorded the original version), to Kid Ory and Alex Hill, two jazz musicians and composers of the 1920’s who settled in Los Angeles.

But Mr. Wilson made the show an exclamation point. He stalked the front of the stage, his white mane turned to the audience and his piercing eyes trained on the band. His body was tuned to the music — dislodging rich, overstuffed harmonies of brass and reeds and quelling them, socking his right fist into his left hand to drive the rhythm section harder, ending songs crisply. He squeezed the potential out of the band and led it through a set of his own music, written over the last 40 years, since he became a bandleader for the second time in the 1960’s.

Previous to that, in the 1950’s, Mr. Wilson had gone behind the scenes — as an arranger for Duke Ellington, among others, but also in Hollywood. The feeling of staff-orchestra jazz, a sound most Americans over 30 have in the back of their heads from film and television, is central to Mr. Wilson’s work: his music is rich and driving, well tailored and swanky, full of unfolding detail. (One of the pieces he played, “Jeri,” recorded in 1961, has a figure in its bridge that would be echoed a decade later in the theme song to “The Price Is Right.”) Like Ellington, his greatest influence, he specializes in tone poems — for family members, for places, for bullfighters. And he respects the demands of popular art. He doesn’t overestimate your patience.

He likes bravado and encouraged Mr. Marsalis to show the audience what he could do on trumpet. Mr. Marsalis was featured in “Carlos,” a musical portrait of the Mexican matador Carlos Arruza from the mid-60’s with a tonal atmosphere similar to that of the Gil Evans-Miles Davis album “Sketches of Spain.”

Mr. Wilson gets his drama out of harmony and dynamics, and Mr. Marsalis rose to the occasion, matching the tension of the piece with a tight solo, ending with whistling glissando figures. Exhausted, he took a bow. “Mr. Marsalis must take another bow,” Mr. Wilson ordered, with a flourish. And he did.

“Central Avenue Breakdown” repeats tonight at 8 at the Rose Theater, 60th Street and Broadway; (212) 721-6500.

by Ben Ratliff
Source: New York Times