Bicoastal Swing and Stomp in a Lively Onstage Face-Off

In Jazz at Lincoln Center’s business model of jazz, competition brings heroism. Particularly group heroism: a band, preferably being challenged by another band, is its preferred symbol of jazz’s health.

So rather than inviting the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, from Los Angeles, to play three nights of concerts at Rose Hall the normal way, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra set up a double concert, “Big Band Bash,” with both big bands together onstage at all times. The result was strong and unpretentious, visually and aurally powerful; in its differences between performance styles, it also conveyed a degree of instant national context.

There were 34 people on stage — 19 for Clayton-Hamilton, 15 for Jazz at Lincoln Center — arrayed such that they were joined at the piano, with two grands set beside each other. At first each band played a few songs while the other remained silent. But as the concert went on, players on one side sometimes veered into the other side’s audio space or physical space; at the finale — which you could anticipate from the start — both groups played simultaneously.

For this confrontation, each band needed, and had, a clear leader: Wynton Marsalis on the left, John Clayton on the right. (Mr. Clayton has led his band since 1986 with the drummer Jeff Hamilton, but on Friday he served as the band’s announcer, conductor, one of its principal soloists and its featured composer.) And they worked along similar repertory lines: jazz from the 1930s to the 1950s, with the exception of a few new pieces written expressly for each band. On Friday the New Yorkers’ pieces included Duke Ellington’s “Braggin’ in Brass,” Benny Carter’s “Again and Again,” Bud Powell’s “Un Poco Loco,” a section of Mr. Marsalis’s “Vitoria Suite” and Ted Nash’s “Dalí.” The West Coasters’ offerings included Johnny Hodges’s “Squatty Roo,” Joe Young’s “Lullaby of the Leaves” and Mr. Clayton’s “Shout Me Out.”

Though jazz may be a collective act, each band almost seemed to reflect the individual styles of its frontman. Mr. Clayton plays bass with a big, smooth tone and his band likewise gives off a concordant hum; Mr. Marsalis is a trumpeter who loves using mutes and brass vocalizing effects, and his band crackles and chatters in your ear. Some of the night’s best individual performances fell along similar lines. Chris Crenshaw, the Lincoln Center band’s trombonist, was great in “Un Poco Loco,” shouting abruptly through his solo as the rhythm went into some variation of a two-beat stomp; Rickey Woodard, Clayton-Hamilton’s tenor saxophonist, blazed securely and sumptuously through “Squatty Roo.”

The last tunes of the evening in the Rose Theater came from an album that served as a prime example for the task: “First Time: The Count Meets the Duke,” a face-off between Ellington and Basie, recorded in the early ’60s. Here the bands played together, on “To You,” a floating, deep-blue ballad, and “Battle Royal,” charging with “I Got Rhythm” chord changes. It all came down to acres of drums: parries and ripostes by the East Coast’s Ali Jackson and the West Coast’s Jeff Hamilton. It was a showy but sensible way to close. Jazz always exists in relation to other jazz.

by Ben Ratliff
Source: New York Times

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