A Children’s Lesson About Seasons and People

“Suite for Human Nature,” which opened at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater on Thursday night, is a gently jazz-educational cross between the trenchant lessons of ancient myth and the gentler storytelling of children’s suites like “Peter and the Wolf.”

Its score, composed by Wynton Marsalis, slips through New Orleans jazz and ragtime, Miles Davis’s cool period, the big-band Count Basie of the 1950’s and the later Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn collaborations, as well as ballads, marches and scatting. Diane Charlotte Lampert, a playwright and songwriter, wrote the libretto and lyrics.

At this point, with the dew still thick on the sheet music, it is a cute, slight piece of work, with an abundance of jazz styles played well, but little narrative pull or melodic strength. But it has lots of room for evolution — a good thing, since a brand new, year-round arts presenter of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s stature needs a durable holiday show. I hesitate to say whether “Suite for Human Nature” is the one to stick with because its true test audience was staying home on a school night. I didn’t see anyone in the hall under 35.

Thursday’s performance was its fourth; the Lincoln Theater in Washington had the first three. (The piece was commissioned by the Washington Performing Arts Society.) There are no dancers or stage sets in this show; three singers (Milt Grayson, Jennifer Sanon and Allan Harris) emerged for one number each. The rest was carried by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (conducted on Thursday by Robert Sadin); brief bursts of song from the Boys Choir of Harlem, which stayed at the back of the stage through the 90-minute work; and the evening’s narrator, the actress and writer Nancy Giles.

Because this is jazz, there were frequent spaces for improvisation in the music — opportunities for musical acting that could significantly alter the impact of each performance. Various solos by Mr. Marsalis and Marcus Printup on trumpet, Victor Goines on clarinet, Walter Blanding Jr. on tenor saxophone and Joe Temperley on baritone saxophone were graceful and evocative in signaling wistfulness, panic, celebration and so on. But they can go further: without visuals, a child needs a little more musical exaggeration.

The story tells of Mother Nature and Father Time; the creation of their imperfect human children (named Fear, Envy, Hate, Greed and Fickle) out of sticks and stones and pumpkin seeds; and the judgmental Four Winds, who blow their opinions around. The family cools down with one last childbirth, when Mother Nature gives birth to twins named Love. Hate is the last to adjust; he has never learned to look at anything twice.

Ms. Lampert’s libretto steers clear of Christmas or any specific holiday per se, though the story passes through the four seasons; its overriding theme, however, is the virtue of accepting others’ shortcomings, a perfect message for late December. It makes frequent stops for homilies and lukewarm wordplay: at the end, while the orchestra plays “The March of the Brats,” the libretto describes “each marching off to the beat of his own drummer, and when one of them got out of line, Love kept them together.” (There’s a song, too, sung by Mr. Harris, about the winds blowing off the “e” in hate and turning it into a hat.)

As in past works including “Blood on the Fields” and “All Rise,” Mr. Marsalis gets into the challenge of musical description, whether he is intimating stress or conflict (wayward, dissonant Dixieland), peaceful cooperation (a restful quartet passage borrowing elements of Davis’s “Kind of Blue” album), or a fight (a fast, swinging big-band blues).

More and more, he has created a sort of jazz that represents generalizations of human temperament and isn’t merely art about art. But though this score holds your attention with plenty of stimulating arrangement devices and piquant moods, the show still needs the kind of songs that will make you want to take your children next year.

“Suite for Human Nature” repeats at 8 tonight and 3 p.m. tomorrow at Rose Theater, Broadway at 60th Street.

by Ben Ratliff
Source: The New York Times

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