Concert review: Marsalis and Lincoln Center big band jazz up Jefferson Center crowd
Jazz trumpeter, composer and band leader Wynton Marsalis is a guru to some, a gadfly to others. He insists on defining the genre from its traditions, rather than (as he sees it) the latest stylistic fads, which often water down the form.
He doesn’t simply talk about it. He takes his musical message to the people. Whatever you make of his words, it is certain that there’s no better evening of music than what his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra can offer us.
Marsalis and the orchestra he founded and directs returned to Jefferson Center on Wednesday, bringing its big band message to a sold-out Shaftman Performance Hall.
The 15-piece group opened with Sonny Rollins’s five-movement “Freedom Suite.” JLCO’s saxophonist-arranger Walter Blanding put together this version, originally recorded in 1958 with bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Max Roach.
Blanding’s imaginative transitions featured Luques Curtis, subbing for the JLCO’s usual bassist, Carlos Henriquez. Curtis, providing the nucleus of joy, combined with brilliant pianist Dan Nimmer and drummer Obed Calvaire to forge formidable support throughout the set.
The first movement grew from a lyrical, lilting swing to a figurative fireworks release. It featured tenor saxophonist Nicole Glover, who brought the audience squarely in touch with Rollins’s complexity. Her solo peaked in a single salvo of “Salt Peanuts!”
The short second movement began with a Latin feel not heard in the original. The ballad-like third movement’s “Stella By Starlight”-style lushness featured Paul Nedzela’s magnificent baritone sax and the super-soulful trumpet of Marcus Printup.
Blanding gave a jungle treatment to the fourth movement’s hypnotic Rollins ostinato. Alto player Sherman Irby sustained the temperature to the obvious pleasure of his comrades, after which trumpeter Kenny Rampton, in dialog with Nimmer, led everyone over the parapet.
The final movement launched with Alexa Tarantino’s quirky, entertaining alto solo and then featured Chris Crenshaw’s tour de force bop trombone — all driven forward via Calvaire’s scampish metrical interruptions, his serene cool giving way to the sonic provocateur lurking within.
After the Rollins, Victor Goines’s “A Dance at the Mardi Gras Ball” featured the composer on soprano sax and Ryan Kisor on cornet. Marsalis introduced “Dance” as having a “deceptive simplicity,” noting its 12-tone row. Nimmer’s elegant piano textures punctuated the work’s expansive beauty.
Duke Ellington’s “The Mooche” came next and featured three of the band’s saxophonists on clarinet, transporting us to an exalted past when Ellington’s embrace of Harlem primitivism brought Manhattan night life to the legendary Cotton Club. Quite a thrill to hear it performed live. Goines’s soprano sax and Printup’s trumpet evoked the bygone while anchoring the music in the present, as only live performance can.
Trombonist Crenshaw was a star of the evening. He blew off the roof in the fifth movement of the Rollins, with playing unlike anything I’ve heard in live performance. After the Ellington, we heard Crenshaw’s own “Conglomerate,” from the JLCO’s 2020 album “The Fifties: A Prism.” Marsalis directed our attention to the work’s exploration of New Orleans counterpoint, the regular pairing and re-pairing of duets and quartets in the musical texture, noting, too, the title’s double sense as noun and verb.
The band concluded with “The Son,” the Offertory instrumental from Marsalis’s “The Abyssinian Mass,” written to honor the 2008 bicentennial of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. The number embodied the swinging celebration typical of the work. It not only featured Marsalis’s most prominent solo of the night but also showcased the terrific Calvaire. Elliot Mason’s extended trombone solo seemed to push the boundaries of instrumental range and melodic angularity.
This was the world’s finest music from cats with the finest jazz chops — anywhere.
by Gordon Marsh
Source: Roanoke Times