Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra review: Wynton Marsalis and friends take on ‘Jazz Ambassadors’

You rarely see Orchestra Hall as packed as it was on Friday night, even the terrace seating behind the stage jammed with listeners.

But that’s become a kind of norm for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, which long ago made Orchestra Hall a “second home,” in the words of JALC managing and artistic director Wynton Marsalis.

It wasn’t always this way. When the ensemble made its first national tour, playing Orchestra Hall in September 1992, Marsalis and friends were trying to show that America needed a world-class jazz orchestra that could honor past masters while forging future ones. That program proved revelatory, the ensemble – then called the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra – shedding new light on Duke Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy,” capturing the ebullient spirit of jazz’s first star in Ellington’s “Portrait of Louis Armstrong” and illuminating the deep bonds between jazz and classical music in Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s “Peer Gynt.”

Since that performance, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra has built a global following, and on Friday night it showed why in a themed program titled “Jazz Ambassadors.”

To Marsalis, jazz isn’t just America’s autobiographical music but the sound we’ve sent around the world to represent “the best of what our country” has to offer, he recently told me. Meaning that visionaries such as Dizzy Gillespie and Dave Brubeck – the jazz ambassadors most prominently featured on this program – brought American ideals of freedom and democracy around the planet, as embodied by the sound of jazz.

It would be difficult to name many other contemporary ensembles that could negotiate the hyper-virtuosity of Gillespie’s “Things to Come” as audaciously as the JLCO did for the concert’s finale. A pinnacle in bebop-driven orchestral writing (arranged by Gil Fuller), “Things to Come” seems to defy what 15 jazz musicians should be able to achieve in unison at terrifying velocity.

The tempo that Marsalis chose rivaled Gillespie’s, the orchestra tearing through this music as if chasing the wind. Only a group of musicians who have toured together for so long – with several original members still on the bandstand – could have attained this kind of synchronicity in intricate passagework.

No one can challenge Gillespie’s speed in solos, any more than anyone can match Ella Fitzgerald’s wizardry in scat singing or trumpeter Louis Armstrong’s golden tones in stratospheric pitches. But Marsalis’ solo in “Things to Come” coupled a phenomenally fast tempo with impeccably crisp articulation of every fast-flying note, an approach as singular as Gillespie’s. Such was the creativity of this cadenza – with its stop-start rhythms, piercing high notes and ferocious sense of swing – that some band members turned around to watch Marsalis at work. It was indeed something to see and hear.

Gillespie’s bebop breakthroughs also defined his “Jump Did-Le Ba,” which in JLCO trombonist Chris Crenshaw’s arrangement became a platform for high-flying vocals in the Fitzgerald manner. To hear Crenshaw, trombonist Vincent Gardner and saxophonist Camille Thurman singing and riffing in response to one another was to recognize anew these musicians’ inherent creativity. For no written score could possibly have notated the mercurial lines, novel sonic effects and explosive rhythms these artists invented on the spot, while a jazz orchestra roared behind them.

Like Gillespie, Brubeck took his music and mission around the world, venturing behind the Iron Curtain and into the Middle East not only with the American beat but with his own subversions of it. Odd meters and funky syncopations were integral to his work, and you could hear it in his “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” via another ingenious Crenshaw arrangement. Pianist Dan Nimmer conjured big block chords evoking Brubeck’s signature style, and alto saxophonist Ted Nash ranged from softly purring phrases (suggesting Brubeck colleague Paul Desmond) to sharply defined flurries of notes.

“We can’t be in Chicago without remembering one of our greatest jazz ambassadors, Benny Goodman,” Marsalis told the audience by way of introducing “King Porter Stomp.” One of the most revered of jazz compositions, it helped make Chicagoan Goodman a star, via Fletcher Henderson’s arrangement.

That wouldn’t have happened, however, were it not for the genius of composer Jelly Roll Morton, who not only penned “King Porter Stomp” but was the first to prove that the elusive art of jazz could be put to paper. None of the jazz ambassadors could have pursued their work without Morton’s achievement.

By opening the “Jazz Ambassadors” concert with “King Porter Stomp,” Marsalis seemed to be making precisely that point.

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis will perform “South African Songbook” at 8 p.m. Saturday in Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; ticket prices vary; 312-294-3000 or

by Howard Reich
Source: Chicago Tribune

« Previous Entry

Next Entry »