Concert review: Lincoln Center orchestra, Wynton Marsalis bring big New Orleans cheer to Portland

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis was back in Portland on Wednesday night. And, as in past visits, the group was welcomed by an enthusiastic sell-out crowd at Merrill Auditorium for this Ovations event.

The show was also scheduled for Thursday at the Collins Center for the Arts in Orono.

At Wednesday’s show, the band strayed from their usual mix of favorites by Duke Ellington, Count Basie and other jazz greats. But the spirit of classic big band music was certainly still there in the arrangements, mostly by band members, of the traditional holiday songs that the ensemble came to play.

The band started strong with a hard-swinging take on “Jingle Bells,” with Marsalis’ trumpet soaring above bluesy shouts from the rest of the brass section. A little later, saxophonist Walter Blanding’s arrangement of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” added playful, humorous touches, including some suggestive smacks from the leader’s horn. An inviting, mid-tempo “White Christmas” was also a highlight.

Portland was the first stop on their holiday tour, and the band seemed just a little tentative in spots, particularly in closing off numbers. But this was overshadowed by the collective and individual virtuosity more often on display.

Another new element for this visit was the presence of two “special guest” vocalists, Denzal Sinclaire and Audrey Shakir. Separately and in duet, both rode comfortably atop the powerful sound established by the hard-charging orchestra.

Sinclaire got things started with “Xmas Bells,” his deep baritone filling in the spaces between the tolling pulses from the orchestra. The suave Canadian vocalist later held fast to the melody of “The Christmas Song,” while the band chopped the rhythm up into a New Orleans-style mixture of blues and celebration. Bassist Carlos Henriquez’ arrangement of “We Three Kings” also afforded the tall singer a chance to engage with the call-and-response patterns unfolding between sections of the band

Shakir, whose son Walter Blanding is a reedman in the orchestra, established her textured vocal style while also gesturally dramatizing songs. She employed lots of expressive scat singing as she joined Sinclaire on saxman Sherman Irby’s arrangement of “Blue Christmas.” Her take on “Winter Wonderland” was another highlight as the band pulled their sound back a bit, via mutes on the brass and with flutes up front, to accommodate her soulful interpretation. Ted Nash was a standout on this piece, taking a long solo on piccolo which garnered strong applause from the crowd.

Nash, probably the most modern jazz-leaning member of the orchestra, arranged what was a complex, counterpoint-bracketed “Sleigh Ride,” with Shakir holding tight to the vocal reins.

The rhythm section of Henriquez with Dan Nimmer on piano and Wynton’s younger brother Jason Marsalis on drums gave the hornmen and singers a break as the trio dug into a fast-paced “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

The 90 minute-plus performance finished with saxophonist Victor Goines’ arrangement of “Silent Night.” It was anything but silent, with the band in full New Orleans good-time mode once again. Showcasing the singers one last time, this piece also confirmed that, no matter what the featured repertoire, there’s nothing quite like the sound of a first-rate big band.

by Steve Feeney
Source: Portland Press Herald

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