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Wynton Marsalis leads a lively triple-header with orchestra

What’s the difference between a great ensemble and a merely fine one?

Perhaps it’s malleability: the gift for adapting quickly to shifting artistic demands.

Certainly Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra showed that skill over the weekend in Orchestra Hall, playing three different concerts in quick succession and to striking effect. Any one of the performances would have been memorable. All three pointed to a band that consistently rises to changing aesthetic circumstances.

Artistically speaking, the most rigorous and technically demanding program of this residency occurred on Friday night, the band taking on music of Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington. Though there’s obviously some connective tissue among these giants, each draws upon particular musical and sonic vocabularies.

By bringing together all of this repertoire in a single program, Marsalis in effect presented the JALC Orchestra first and foremost as a virtuoso ensemble fluent in multiple jazz languages. That most of the scores were arranged by JALC members suggested that these musicians are as adroit with a pen as they are with their instruments.

Every work on the program offered ample technical hurdles, but nowhere did the JALC ensemble sound more impressive or compelling than in Coltrane’s “Ole.” For starters, fully six orchestra members crafted the arrangement, each taking on a particular segment of the piece. Thus reedist Ted Nash’s pages were followed by trombonist Vincent Gardner’s contributions, which gave way to saxophonist Walter Blanding’s scoring, drummer Ali Jackson’s work and so on.

All of which may seem like a stunt, half a dozen arrangers creating a round-robin version of an already incantatory Coltrane work. But the contrasts between, say, Victor Goines’ rhythmically intricate writing and Marsalis’ nimble passages for clarinet choir showcased this ensemble’s adaptability.

For the listener, this version of “Ole” amounted to a mini-concert in itself, a stunning array of orchestral colors, ensemble textures and instrumental voicings in constant flux. That these eruptions of sound should emerge over the seductive rhythms that Jelly Roll Morton famously called the “Spanish tinge” made the experiment all the more appealing. Add to this Marsalis’ radiantly lyric trumpet solo, Nash’s free-flying exhortations on saxophone and Elliot Mason’s all-over-the-horn trombone virtuosity, and you had more sonic information than the ear could fully process in a single hearing. Not a bad problem to have.

Elsewhere in this opening concert, Blanding’s beefy tenor saxophone and Dan Nimmer’s glistening pianism enriched Ellington’s “Oclupaca” (that’s “Acapulco” backwards), from the “Latin American Suite.” Saxophonist Sherman Irby updated the most famous tune in Brubeck’s book, Paul Desmond’s “Take Five,” with an arrangement steeped in snarling brass and contemporary harmonies. And trumpeter Marcus Printup wrote luxuriantly for reeds and transparently for the rest of the band in “Fiesta Mojo,” from Dizzy Gillespie’s “Jambo Caribe” album.

And that was just the opening concert.

The last, on Valentine’s Day night, amounted to a love song from the band to its audience, the emphasis less on technical acuity and more on tenderness of melody. Marsalis and the JALC Orchestra were aided by vocalist Rene Marie, who has performed periodically in Chicago over the years but never as expansively or persuasively as on this evening.

She opened boldly with an original song, “Take My Breath Away,” its erotic message unmistakable yet elegantly delivered, as suited the tonal sheen of the plush ensemble accompanying her. Even if Marie hadn’t conveyed her message with red-hot lyrics, the idea would have been clear from the sensuousness of her voice.

Yes, she oversold Cole Porter’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” and she and the band took too fast a tempo in Michel Legrand’s questing ballad “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” (notwithstanding Nash’s pictorial orchestration). But Marie made up for it in “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” the soulfulness of her sound matched by the interpretive depth of her lyric reading.

On Saturday afternoon, Marsalis and friends presented a Jazz for Young People program that was quite unlike the other two concerts, in that Marsalis and colleagues addressed a specific question in word and song: “Who Is Dave Brubeck?” To do so, Marsalis offered a formal narration, though he embellished it with light-hearted verbal asides as spontaneous as a clever jazz solo.

When it came time to perform Brubeck’s music, however, these musicians played as seriously as if the composer were in the house (Brubeck died in 2012 at age 91). There was no condescending to the children in the audience, in other words. Instead, the youngsters heard Brubeck classics delivered with high spirits, as in trombonist Chris Crenshaw’s ferociously demanding arrangement of “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” complete with cascading syncopations throughout the band.

The question-and-answer session that followed the concert was at least as entertaining, kids queuing up by the dozen to pose inquiries to Marsalis, Mason and guest Russell Gloyd, a Brubeck conductor-collaborator who may know more about this music than anyone alive.

Question: “How many instruments are in jazz?”

Marsalis: “All instruments are in jazz.”

Question: “What’s it like to have your music loved and performed by all?”

Marsalis: “I don’t know that I’ve experienced that.”

But surely he came close on this weekend.

– Howard Reich
Source: Chicago Tribune

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