Channeling the Granddaddy of Skid-Dat-De-Dat

Posted on September 30th, 2006 in Review | Tags: jazz at lincoln center, louis armstrong, new orleans, new york, new york times

In the recorded literature of jazz — and of American music, really — there is no greater document than the stack of three-minute sides made by Louis Armstrong for the OKeh label in the mid- to late 1920’s. Leading two successive bands billed as his Hot Five (and, briefly, a Hot Seven), Armstrong delivered a series of performances bursting with bravura and invention, in the process introducing a heroic new language of improvisation.

That language was scatted, yelped and murmured at the Rose Theater on Thursday night, in the first of three Jazz at Lincoln Center concerts called “Wynton and Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives.” Led by the jazz center’s artistic director, Wynton Marsalis, the program paid straightforward homage to the Hot Five recordings while trying to recreate their magic.

That’s a tall order even for Mr. Marsalis, the most heralded trumpeter to emerge from New Orleans since Armstrong did more than 80 years ago. He handled the task expertly, with a tone less brilliant than Armstrong’s but with a sense of phrase and line that was every ounce as assertively nimble. On “Cornet Chop Suey,” a highlight of the concert, Mr. Marsalis boldly charged through an unaccompanied solo chorus; on “Fireworks” he played an impressive series of breaks, with a leaping syncopation.

He also did an admirable job as host, balancing expectations with anecdotal humor and one instructive creed: “We don’t believe in segregating our music by eras.” He was arguing, among other things, that the Hot Five recordings were timeless, even contemporary. His eight-piece band underscored this assertion on numbers like a rhythmically reconfigured “Once in a While.”

On several other selections, though, a hint of tedium crept in. “Potato Head Blues” felt oddly muted, and “Melancholy” simply wafted by. And despite a tantalizing interlude by Jonathan Batiste on piano and Don Vappie on guitar, “Savoy Blues” gave off the musk of an antique. To a man, the musicians filled their roles capably, but there was little sense of the dashing discovery that Armstrong brought to the music.

The closest thing to an exception came from Wycliffe Gordon, whose contribution equaled that of his bandleader. Mr. Gordon scatted and sang in the ebullient Armstrong style, and his tuba playing was a joy.

On “St. James Infirmary,” which featured a suave vocal by Mr. Marsalis, Mr. Gordon soloed winsomely using just a brass mouthpiece; on “Skid-Dat-De-Dat” he interrupted his own vocal chorus with a single comically inept phrase on trumpet. More than once he picked up a bass, joining the band’s regular bassist, Carlos Henriquez, who was then free to solo.

One of the concert’s telling moments occurred on “Ory’s Creole Trombone,” which featured Mr. Gordon on his primary instrument alongside another fine trombonist, Vincent Gardner. Draping a black kerchief over the bell of his horn, Mr. Gordon delivered a monster performance in a stubbornly archaic style. Even if it wasn’t supposed to be anchored to an era, it came as an exhilarating jolt from out of time.

“Wynton and Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives” repeats tonight at Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center, 60th Street and Broadway; (212) 721-6500 or jalc.org

by Nate Chinen
Source: The New York Times