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JLCO with Wynton Marsalis and Cécile McLorin Salvant at Marcus Center in Milwaukee

The holiday season fits polymath Wynton Marsalis like a big white mitten. The artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center totes nine Grammy awards, a Pulitzer Prize and a bounty of celebratory musical goodies to share in spirit, as might the most soulful St. Nick.

Marsalis opened Milwaukee’s Christmas season with his orchestra of 15 elves who came across as a lot more than Wynton’s helpers. Marsalis is likely the most celebrated living jazz musician, but he splintered the spotlight into 15 different fragments, illuminating each member while perched in the back row with the other trumpeters. No ostentatious conducting, yet he’s mastered the jazz orchestra idiom, no doubt.

He also shares an astonishing wellspring of historical knowledge. Some critics consider him culturally retro, questioning how he uses his power to influence music. But on this night he plumbed the past’s depths to bring them on home, to now. The African American bandleader also silenced those who once reproached a lack of diversity in the orchestra, with a handful of Caucasians and Latino bassist Carlos Henriquez.

And with singer Cécile McLorin Salvant, he offered the newest female jazz vocal sensation going. Her trademark white-framed glasses, gossamer ivory gown and red shoes brimmed with perfect seasonal tonalities. And her mocha-rich voice ran the gamut of colors, octaves, textures, influences and manners, without drowning her identity.

On “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” Salvant’s voice glided over piquant trumpet harmonies, her tones stretching like taffy. During “It’s Easy to Blame the Weather,” her supple singing slipped behind the beat like an eel, evoking the great Betty Carter.

For one of the band’s most ingenious renderings, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” horns evoked mewling, mooing animals gathered in a tattered percussive structure, alluding to the animals and manger at Christ’s birth. Arranger Ted Nash retained the song’s shifting sands of Middle Eastern minor modality.

On the venerable “White Christmas” a muted trombone swung righteously, garlanded with seasonal trinkets of tinkling piano and chiming bells.

Several tunes Marsalis described as “Negro spirituals” and he noted how we’ve come far since the days when the director of the black Fisk Jubilee Singers was almost arrested for playing a “Negro folk song” like “Go Tell It on the Mountain” at his own university in 1907. Marsalis updated it appropriately, noting the song’s importance to the 1960s civil rights movement.

There was even something special for Milwaukee homers in Marsalis’ bag. Brew Town pianist Dan Nimmer got a highlighted solo and delivered a rippling attack of sculpted, big band-style piano. Marsalis, whose father is also a musician-mentor, made sure Nimmer’s parents in the crowd of 1,300 got a hand, and acknowledged the parental imperative of musicians: “You did not waste your money on these lessons.”

Finally Marsalis’ large group exemplified the democratic principle that jazz is about ideas and feelings coming together, and sharing the wealth of humanity’s hard-won efforts. All band members spoke their piece and everyone shared a peace, wind-blown and bluesy but warm and swinging.

Source: Express Milwaukee

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