Marsalis & JLCO Dance Among the GravestonesJazz at Lincoln Center traffics in ghost stories as a matter of course, fashioning living memorials to long-gone masters of America’s indigenous art form. So it was no great shock that the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis seemed at home on June 11 playing amid the gravestones of Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
The concert—held during twilight on a temperate evening—helped mark the 150th anniversary of the cemetery, a national landmark that is the final home to many illustrious names in jazz history. The evening’s theme, unsurprisingly, revolved around their music.
Marsalis took full advantage, playing up his connection to New Orleans’ funeral society and encouraging applause for the resident departed—tactics that, in his hands, worked. As the program unfolded and the exhortations kept coming, the dead became a kind of critical third party that lent the music an added dimension.
Opening with a septet, Marsalis was operating squarely in a personal sweet spot with King Oliver’s “Dippermouth Blues” and W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” On the former, Victor Goines’ clarinet, wailing its way into the upper registers, stole the spotlight, which, on the latter tune, turned toward the rhythm section, where a Cuban habanera was churning in the hands of pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Carlos Henriquez and drummer Ali Jackson.
The tone set, Marsalis brought out the balance of the band, remaining on JALC home turf with Duke Ellington’s “Concerto For Cootie.” The 1940 piece found trumpeter Ryan Kisor, all guttural growling and brassy baying, at once channeling Cootie Williams and establishing a subtext centered on individual players communing with counterparts in the spirit realm.
On “Flying Home,” tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding summoned Illinois Jacquet and a 1942 solo that anticipated the sound of rock ’n’ roll sax. Blanding, who worked with Jacquet, drew judiciously from the Texas tenor’s bag of tricks, deploying enough of his intervallic leaps and raw muscularity to evoke his presence without adopting his identity. Like all of the performances during the show, this one was tempered by the urbane JALC sensibility.
Max Roach already possessed that kind of sensibility when, in 1966, he released “The Drum Also Waltzes,” a solo vehicle that Jackson, a onetime Roach student, exploited to lyrical effect. Lightly layering patterns over a simple bass-drum-and-hi-hat ostinato, Jackson, like Roach before him, built a series of statements that grew in complexity, ultimately forming an argument for the melodic possibilities of his instrument—and reveling in them.
Henriquez, meanwhile, reveled in a whole other kind of rhythmic experience, recalling a former employer, Celia Cruz (1925–2003), with a voluble medley of “El Yerberito Moderno” and “Quimbara.” Aided by his old mate in Cruz’s band, percussionist Bobby Allende—and flutist Ted Nash, whose highly articulated lines swirled atop the rumble—Henriquez and company conjured a veritable juggernaut that seemed sure to connect with Cruz, should she have been listening.
In his introduction to Miles Davis’ “Milestones,” Marsalis commented that the piece “showed musicians another way to play on one chord.” The 1958 arrangement (written by Gerald Wilson) was dispatched with crisp efficiency.
Overall, the set offered plenty of evidence—if any were needed—of the critical space JLCO occupies in the cultural landscape. Goines and Blanding eschewed a cutting contest in favor of musical conversation as they engaged the spirit of Coleman Hawkins on “Body And Soul.” And Goines ended the evening as it had begun, unleashing his clarinet, this time on “Second Line” from Ellington’s New Orleans Suite.
With that, Marsalis thanked the audience before offering a plea.
“We hope all you spirits liked it, too,” he said. “Give us a good grade.”
by Phillip Lutz