Latin Grace and Drive Bonding With Jazz

Creolization is such a profound, unceasing force in the United States that it is often overlooked, the way a great vista becomes blank after time. It is to Jazz at Lincoln Center’s credit that it opened its season at Alice Tully Hall on Thursday night with a sold-out concert that was all about the endless bumpings, assimilations and transformations that the Spanish – and English-speaking worlds have caused each other, and it brought that aspect of the American experience to the front of the stage.

The concert, ‘‘Con Alma: The Latin Tinge in Big Band Jazz,’‘ was a historical overview of the common ground found by Afro-Cuban music and jazz. Beyond that thesis, on a pragmatic level, the concert presented rarely heard, beautifully played and often glorious music.

It made the case for the brilliance of the Cuban composer and arranger Chico O’Farrill — who conducted two of his own pieces — a gifted musician who stands as one of jazz’s great cultural translators. The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra performed the ‘‘Manteca Suite,’‘ which Mr. O’Farrill pulled together from a composition by Dizzy Gillespie, and his ‘‘Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite’‘: both of them, with their grace and sophistication, their endless permutations of ideas and textures, brought the house to its feet.

The ‘‘Manteca Suite’‘ has one of the more important melodies in jazz and Latin music, and it let polyphony roar; Wynton Marsalis, the orchestra’s artistic director, soloed on trumpet, sinking down into low notes, burred and rough. In one section the piece began to accumulate webs of harmony and melodic lines until it all cleared the way for the trumpeter Ryan Kisor to solo against the percussion section. Then the piece broke into a swinging blues.

But the blues spent time hanging around, too, and it was clear that American composers had from early on in jazz tried to reconcile a blues sensibility with the propulsion of the Afro-Cuban music. One part of Duke Ellington’s ‘‘Latin American Suite,’‘ ‘‘Oculupaca,’‘ was a dressed-up blues, and in several other pieces, the basic harmonic movement interacted with the Afro-Cuban rhythmic system called the clave. Ellington, who was represented by his composition ‘‘Flaming Sword’‘ and his arrangement of ‘‘Peanut Vendor,’‘ a tune from the 1920’s, came off well, with ‘‘Flaming Sword’‘ just barely containing its harmonic invention. The piece’s dance-music form let Ellington cram it with dissonances that might not have been acceptable had the tune not swung.

The concert ended with Mr. O’Farrill’s ‘‘Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite,’‘ which started out with bursts of sound, then settled down into a slow rhapsodic groove, only to shake it off, jumping into a fast tempo. Ted Nash on flute tore through the piece, with Joseph Gonzalez on guiro marking the time.

Riffs framed solos, and the changing intensity of the rhythm section, with Mr. O’Farrill’s son, Arturo, regularly adding new harmonies and figures to his parts, had the music boiling.

Then the composition stepped into the stillness of quiet repetition, with each instrument playing its own small part and lots of air sifting through before it ended. The music became architectural, and for that the audience gave Mr. O’Farrill, the orchestra and the cultural effort that allowed a piece like it to exist a standing ovation.

By Peter Watrous
Source: New York Times

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