Hark! The Heralded Jazzmen Swing Some Familiar Melodies

Posted on December 17th, 2005 in Review | Tags: christmas music, new york times, red hot holiday stomp

Somewhere between ritual and remnant lies the jazz Christmas concert. As a manifestation of pure secular middle-class civility, it represents a vague and probably disappearing middle ground, even in Manhattan.

But there were enough occupants of this middle ground, some bringing children, to nearly fill the Rose Theater on Thursday night for Jazz at Lincoln Center’s “Red Hot Holiday Stomp,” which runs through Sunday. Unlike “Suite for Human Nature,” the seasonal story with a libretto and original music presented by Jazz at Lincoln Center at this time last year, the current show isn’t a stretch. Wynton Marsalis and a nonet of his closest sidemen — some of them no longer members of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, but still on call for situations like this — played jazz arrangements of well-known Christmas songs like “Carol of the Bells,” “Good King Wenceslas,” “Blue Christmas” and so on.

If you’ve heard Mr. Marsalis’s record “Crescent City Christmas Card,” from which several of the songs derived, you’ve got the idea. But even without that, you may know the general vibe of a Wynton Marsalis show — tight arrangements, collective improvising in the styles of old New Orleans and Miles Davis’s 1960’s quintet, and between-songs speeches in the style of Bill Cosby, but one level shaggier. Too subdued to be a kids’ show, the whole concert was like a bedtime story for adults. (One hopes things get a little rowdier for the Sunday matinee.)

Sleek, cheery and organized, the show was no knockout, but it still validated its own purpose, perhaps because most of these musicians were so comfortable playing together. The returning ex-orchestra members were the trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, the bassist Reginald Veal and the drummer Herlin Riley; the saxophonists were the current members Victor Goines, Wessell Anderson and Joe Temperley. Don Vappie, the New Orleans guitarist, banjoist and singer, strummed along and delivered some scratchy, unamplified solos. The pianist was Dan Nimmer, who has recently been playing with the orchestra. (Mr. Marsalis’s father, Ellis, played piano on several songs.)

Mr. Gordon’s calibrated roar often snaps a concert into focus, but on Thursday he sounded subdued. So the best moments came from Mr. Marsalis, Mr. Riley and especially young Mr. Nimmer, the only one with something to prove: he dug in, splintering his patterns, as if this weren’t just a walk around the block. “Good King Wenceslas,” especially, was no joke: its middle section became a game of fitting the staccato melody into fluid up-tempo swing. And as the musicians improvised together, those melody notes became diffused, spreading around like an unruly canon.

That happened in the second half, when the feeling of formality finally dissipated. Mr. Temperley’s evocation of swing-era tenor saxophone happened, too, on a version of “The Christmas Song,” as did a four-handed version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” played by Ellis Marsalis and Mr. Nimmer. With “O Tannenbaum,” Mr. Riley and the rest of the band made the song’s New Orleans connection: it’s the same melody as “Maryland, My Maryland,” a long-running New Orleans march. It was beautifully played.

“Red Hot Holiday Stomp” will repeat tonight at 8 and tomorrow at 3 p.m. at the Rose Theater, Broadway at 60th Street; (212) 721-6500.

by Ben Ratliff
Source: New York Times