A Dixie feast

A hot New Orleans breeze blew into Symphony Center over the weekend, inspiring more than a few Chicagoans to stand up and holler as if they were on Bourbon Street rather than Michigan Avenue.

Though the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra makes its home in New York, the band plays with an unmistakable Southern drawl. You can hear it in Wynton Marsalis’ Satchmo-styled trumpet, in drummer Herlin Riley’s street-shuffle dance beats and in Wessell Anderson’s deep-blue saxophone sighs.

And when this band takes on the music of Louis Armstrong, now and forever the Crescent City’s most famous cultural export, the South almost sounds as if it might rise again.

By devoting the first half of the evening to the great Satchmo, Marsalis and friends did more than just acknowledge the Armstrong centennial celebration underway since last summer. More important, the band re-examined several pivotal chapters of Armstrong’s career, none more poetically than the music he played after arriving in Chicago, in August of 1922.

Today, it’s hard to imagine the effect that Armstrong’s shattering high Cs and rhythmically explosive two- and four-bar solos must have had on a Roaring ’20s audience. The 21st Century world we live in is far too frantic and heavily amplified for a lone trumpet to make jaws drop.

Yet within the confines of Orchestra Hall, a pared-down contingent of LCJO players came close Friday to re-creating the moment. With the band cutting its volume at critical moments, Marsalis and trumpeter Marcus Printup stunningly recalled the brilliant two-horn solos that made Armstrong and Joe “King” Oliver the hottest attraction in Prohibition Chicago.

Back then, the band belonged to King Oliver, who had been Armstrong’s hero and mentor back home in New Orleans. But Armstrong, by the early 1920s, already was the superior cornetist. So Oliver shrewdly kept Armstrong at his side, the two musicians playing with more fire and fury than listeners had ever heard from a pair of horns.

When Marsalis and Printup did likewise in “Snake Rag,” firing off fast-flying sixteenth notes in perfect synchronicity, the audience practically erupted. One rarely hears this music played with such technical brilliance, stylistic authenticity and tonal sheen.

In Jelly Roll Morton’s “Wild Man Blues,” another New Orleans classic from the earliest days of Armstrong’s career, Marsalis stood front and center, working the plunger mute as if born to a tradition that originated roughly a century ago. The band’s deliberate tempo and radiant singing style suggested that the Lincoln Center players had fully achieved a New Orleans state of mind.

After his first triumphs with his Hot Five and Hot Seven bands in 1920s Chicago, Armstrong emerged as an international star and moved on to fronting a variety of big bands. Though none was as distinguished or as innovative as the smaller bands he led in Chicago, Armstrong’s virtuoso playing nonetheless enthralled audiences, and LCJO trumpeter Seneca Black underscored the point with an audaciously fast and furious version of “Swing That Music.”

No, Black’s telegraphic high notes didn’t have quite as much punch and power as Armstrong’s, but, then, whose do? It wasn’t until the second half of the concert, however, that listeners heard the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in full cry, its ranks expanded to play more modern, orchestral fare.

Here were the throaty reeds, percussive trumpet blasts and visceral sense of swing that have made the LCJO the greatest large jazz ensemble working today.

The tour de force here was the “Caboose” movement from Marsalis’ “Big Train,” an epic piece that re-imagines the sounds of a locomotive — from the piercing steam whistle to the clickety-clack of the wheels — in jazz-swing terms. With Marsalis’ clarion trumpet lines soaring over splashes of orchestral color and ethereal vocal chant, this was the most vivid musical train ride since Ellington’s essays in the genre.

Add to this the LCJO’s glorious reed choirs in excerpts from Ellington’s “Anatomy of a Murder” score and the band’s propulsive swing rhythm in Marsalis’ “Back to Basics” (from “Blood on the Fields”), and it’s no wonder the sell-out crowd shouted its approval during Friday night’s concert.

There’s nothing else to do when a great New Orleans band plays at full tilt — even if the band happens to be from New York.

by Howard Reich
Source: Chicago Tribune

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