Old Friends Get Together, Feeling Right at Home

When Wynton Marsalis performs with his septet in New York these days, it is a special occasion. He toured Europe with the band a few years ago, but his duties at Lincoln Center as well as his ambitions to compose large works for big ensembles reached critical mass in the late 1990’s. So the septet faded into the background.

But it’s good to be reminded of what it achieved. On Wednesday, at Rose Theater, the band entered from stage left, the musicians chanting in a slow single-file entrance, moving and stomping their feet in parade rhythm. As soon as they took their positions and dug into the tune — it was Mr. Marsalis’s “Ain’ No” — they flooded the acoustical space in the room.

This is what ownership sounds like. It’s his house, and Mr. Marsalis’s septet energized it in a way that I hadn’t seen since Rose, the home of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, opened last October. The band was obviously feeling good as it produced its enormous sound; the groove of the rhythm section (Farid Barron on piano, Reginald Veal on bass, and Herlin Riley on drums) was so emphatic and authoritative that it liberated everyone else, shoving them into a no-recrimination zone to do whatever they wanted.

They all took advantage of the situation, but a few moments stood out. Victor Goines, playing soprano saxophone, stole his way up the horn on the first tune and built a solo out of single notes with wide vibrato. He was connecting Sidney Bechet and John Coltrane, and suddenly, without much forecasting, the rhythm lurched from New Orleans into four bars of rhythm suggesting the Coltrane quartet’s. Then the music turned into “Black Codes (From the Underground),” a much earlier Marsalis tune.

Wycliffe Gordon, the band’s trombonist, came on stage singing, or actually yelling, and where his mouth stopped his horn took over. (The burry hollering through his instrument suggested the voice; it’s all one thing with him.) He’s one of jazz’s larger-than-life players, and he was a gusher of texture and sound effects, all tightly attached to the going rhythm.

Mr. Marsalis spent his time moving around the stage, bouncing his notes off different walls of the theater-in-the-round like a squash player. In “The Death of Jazz,” a slow minor blues, he found his purest expression, playing a stream of original phrases that lay outside normal blues vocabulary. And behind the singer Dianne Reeves, who joined the band for three songs, he continued his experiments in sound and rhythm; Ms. Reeves, who has a voice like an aircraft carrier, pushed the band to even fuller projection, particularly on a scatted version of Thelonious Monk’s “Green Chimneys.”

The evening was special for another reason, too, in that it paired Mr. Marsalis on a double bill with Dave Douglas. (The concert was sponsored by HIP Health Plan of New York.) Mr. Douglas has a lot in common with Mr. Marsalis: a gifted, precise trumpeter and composer rooted in jazz, a prolific recordmaker, an effective organizer within his own circle. But his circle has been more experimental — what used to be called “downtown” jazz — and Jazz at Lincoln Center hasn’t shown much interest in annexing that audience. Mr. Douglas, with his quintet, worked hard and seriously, and managed to go over well anyway.

With Uri Caine playing a Fender Rhodes keyboard and Donny McCaslin on tenor saxophone, as well as the bassist James Genus and drummer Clarence Penn, it’s a band that starts from the generalized sound of late-60’s Miles Davis. But Mr. Douglas’s tight compositions, using little pockets of ostinato, strong harmonic motion and contrapuntal writing, aren’t ordinary or derivative, and what he’s borrowing more than anything else is urgency: the sense of foreboding that Davis evoked. And with titles like “The Sheik of Things to Come” and “Culture Wars,” it was clear that Mr. Douglas’s compositions had social and political influences as well as jazz-history ones.

by Ben Ratliff
Source: New York Times

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  1. It was outstanding from both sides. Douglas with a less traditional approach by the complexed forms of his compositions and harmonies, and the Marsalis Septet with more “traditional” and hard swinging music. Both with outstanding musicianship and lyrically and soulfully delivered ideas. Both on top of their games. A treat of musical sophistication and soul, in different styles. It was truly hip. it could not have been a better choice of tasteful and rich contrast by HIP, the sponsor.

    Frederique on Mar 18th, 2005 at 10:56am