Don Quixote Rides Again, With an Ellingtonian Sidekick

More than two hours of original jazz music was played at Rose Theater on Thursday night. It was shaped around stories from “Don Quixote” and scored for 15 musicians and 2 singers, with a professional actor reading about 5,000 words of Cervantes in and around 23 songs and instrumental sketches. It was ambitious, well played, deeply Ellingtonian – and completely indigestible.

The piece, “Chivalrous Misdemeanors,” was written by Ron Westray, a trombonist in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. And after this weekend it will take shelf space in a growing library of extended works commissioned from within the orchestra by Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Mr. Westray is a good trombonist who isn’t particularly known as a composer, though he has written arrangements for the Lincoln Center band in the past. “Chivalrous Misdemeanors” is Jazz at Lincoln Center to the core: it seems to have assumed its polished sound and overinflated shape like a cake in a mold, because of the band playing it and the organization presenting it. I’ve now heard hours of Mr. Westray’s music, but most of it is so thick with Ellington and ceremony that I’m still not sure what his real strengths are as a composer.

According to the program essay, Mr. Westray loves Cervantes’s novel and was particularly struck by the author’s feat: to “turn common conversation into literature, shedding light on human fallibility.” (It’s also the 400th anniversary of the publication of the book’s first part.) He saw a connection with the jazz musician’s task, to reshape “simple” blues material into ultra-complex, sophisticated art.

That’s a fair pretext, and you couldn’t fault the playing: the rich balance in the orchestra’s brass and reed sections; some short, startling trumpet solos by Wynton Marsalis and the strong tone and rhythm of the bassist Carlos Henriquez, who got the orchestra moving more than once.

But Mr. Westray made the music insanely overloaded: drowning in polyphony, packed with dissonance upon dissonance, suggesting Ellington at his most provocative but without much of his charm. Even during fairly placid saxophone solos, there were high, astringent brass harmonies in perpetual motion; no single element could be sufficiently taken in, and that includes Cervantes and all his levels of irony. In an incredible amount of dithering, there were only a few mild strokes of humor.

On top of and in between the music’s 23 discrete sections, Patrick Tull read endless sections of prose, picked from various parts of the novel. His phlegmy, fluting voice could be hard to track as he raced through his narration, and especially as he talked over the music. For that matter, it prevented you from noticing Mr. Westray’s writing, legitimately strong in parts. They included an attractive prelude section anchored by a descending, looping piano line; a thundering and concentrated Knight of the White Moon section; and a slow ballad for Dulcinea, which had a similarity to Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” but at least remained direct.

There were some nice melodic effects, too, in the songs, sung by Sachal Vasandani and Jennifer Sanon. But they were clumsied up with Mr. Westray’s cute lyrics, banalities like “you live and you learn” and “life is an adventure.” Cervantes isn’t enough? (Five thousand words of it?) For that matter, wouldn’t a quarter of Mr. Westray’s melodies have been enough?

The year 2013 will be the centenary of the publication of “Swann’s Way.” That’s another prime windmill, and Jazz at Lincoln Center may be tempted to tilt at it. Brace yourself, man.

Ron Westray’s “Chivalrous Misdemeanors,” performed by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, continues through tonight at Rose Theater, Frederick P. Rose Hall, 60th Street and Broadway, (212) 721-6500.

by Ben Ratliff
Source: The New York Times

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