Marsalis and JLCO play marathon, with a little help from Basie

It was billed as a “Battle Royale,” but the matchup between the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the Count Basie Orchestra on Saturday night turned out to be more love fest than cutting contest.

Which had its virtues. How often, after all, do you get to hear two sprawling jazz organizations crowded onto the stage of Orchestra Hall, each exploring specific facets of a vast repertoire? Though it would have been fun to behold these bands going after one another — and to see which one was left standing — their mutual respect and admiration made a larger point: Each champions an all-American music that’s celebrated far less often in our culture than it deserves, and rarely with so many musicians in such a regal setting before an overflow audience.

Or as Count Basie Orchestra leader Scotty Barnhart put it very early in the proceedings, “It’s a great night for jazz.”

That statement might have seemed a tad premature, considering how much music was yet to be played, but Barnhart and JLCO leader Wynton Marsalis made good on it, time and again. Considering that this was the grand finale of a three-concert residency by JLCO, it needed to serve as an exclamation point for the marathon weekend. It did.

But the warm words and collegial spirit of the evening didn’t mean that any of the musicians were going to hold anything back, as JLCO showed in its second selection of the night, Duke Ellington’s “Braggin’ in Brass” from 1938. The work stands as a JLCO showpiece, having served as a high point of last year’s “Live in Cuba” album and a tour de force when the band swung through Orchestra Hall on its 25th anniversary tour in 2013. Can any contemporary jazz ensemble hope to match the lightning-quick pianissimo passages the muted trumpets played in unison, or the brilliant three-part counterpoint dispatched by the trombones?

The Basie organization responded robustly, with a churning, burning account of Ernie Wilkins’ “Basie,” but this performance was more joyous than aggressive, more musical than technically ostentatious. Doug Lawrence’s leonine tenor saxophone solo reflected the muscularity of the ensemble at large, and the culminating drum solo by Ray Nelson II was exuberance personified.

JLCO always has stood out not only for its corporate virtuosity but also for the consistently high level of its soloists. You could hear as much in trumpeter Ryan Kisor’s sometimes coy, sometimes clarion statement in Duke Ellington’s “Concerto for Cootie” (a Kisor specialty); Walter Blanding’s complex but ferociously swinging soliloquy in Ellington’s “Chinoiserie”; and Paul Nedzela’s remarkably nimble, light-on-its-feet passagework on baritone saxophone in Ellington’s “Old Man Blues,” which also underscored JLCO’s fidelity to early-period performance practice and tone.

The evening’s high point arrived, of course, when both bands joined forces in the Count Basie theme song “One O’Clock Jump.” To hear so many horns and so much rhythmic propulsion pulling in the same direction was to understand anew why Marsalis often refers to jazz as a metaphor for American democracy: Everyone gets a say, but we fare best when we band together.

Saturday afternoon

You don’t have to be a kid to learn from the “Jazz for Young People” matinee the JLCO presents during each Orchestra Hall residency. This year’s theme — “Who Is Duke Ellington?” — held particular allure, for Ellington’s music stands at the core of the band’s repertory.

As always on these occasions, Marsalis narrated the story, the JLCO players offering musical examples to help tell the tale. Along the way, children and their parents heard the essentials of Ellington’s biography, learned the meaning of jazz terms such as “riff” and “shout chorus” and witnessed the band members discussing and emulating the Ellington stars who inspired them.

It’s a fair bet that many of the youngsters in the house — from toddlers to teens — never had encountered the azure tones of “Mood Indigo,” the relentless rhythms of “C-Jam Blues” or the high-flying spirit of “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” But Marsalis and friends also deconstructed these masterworks, illustrating, for instance, the sonic effects Ellington achieved through instrumental voicing on “Mood Indigo” and the growling trumpet utterances that enrich “East St. Louis Toodle-O.”

But there was something more at play, here, too, for Marsalis — like his father, Ellis, as much teacher as performer — sought to impart life lessons through jazz. Frequently during the afternoon, the trumpeter asked the youngsters to repeat after him:

“I’m the world’s greatest listener.” “Be a No.1 yourself, not a No. 2 someone else.” “If you have good manners, people will like you.”

Riffs worth remembering.

Friday night

“Jazz in the Key of Life,” which kicked off the residency on Friday evening, was designed to celebrate repertoire not typically associated with the JLCO: music of Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway and other vintage pop.

But, ultimately, the concert attested to the band members’ gifts with a pen, their jazz-band arrangements of this fare conjuring orchestral colors, architectural structures and ultra-sophisticated harmonies well beyond the parameters of populist expression.

The music director for the evening was not Marsalis but JLCO trombonist Vincent Gardner, who had invited his orchestral colleagues to re-conceive the oldies and served as eloquent master of ceremonies.

As Gardner was researching possible songs for the program, “One question kept popping into my head,” he told the audience. “What happened to pop music?”

Each generation, of course, tends to find the subsequent one’s hits anywhere from underwhelming to abhorrent, and the enthusiastic audience response to Gardner’s comment confirmed that many JLCO fans had grown up admiring hits of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Indeed, there was no denying the tunefulness and soulfulness of the pieces Gardner and friends chose to re-examine from a jazz perspective, with some arrangements so beautifully it hardly mattered which song they were reimagining.

One of the most moving transformations was the handiwork of JLCO saxophonist/flutist Ted Nash, who turned John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby” into virtually a symphonic statement. Nash’s orchestration opened with a light touch, airy textures and translucent colors, the famous melody elegantly ornamented along the way.

If the up-tempo middle section evoked classic Henry Mancini of the 1960s, the full-throated finale – with radiant brass writing – elevated the original. Ultimately, this amounted to an essay on “Eleanor Rigby,” with fervent solo flourishes from Marsalis’ trumpet and Blanding’s tenor saxophone.

Marsalis’ expansive arrangement of the Crosby, Stills & Nash recording “Wooden Ships” exulted in New Orleans jazz tradition, all the more thanks to Victor Goines’ soaring clarinet solo and Marsalis’ majestic, creamy-toned cadenza.

The spirit of Count Basie radiated from alto saxophonist Sherman Irby’s blues-swing version of Wonder’s “Smile Please”; and pianist Dan Nimmer crafted an uncommonly atmospheric solo in trumpeter Marcus Printup’s lush reinvention of the standard “For All We Know” (which Hathaway recorded with Roberta Flack).

When the band left the stage New Orleans-parade style in “Blame it on the Boogie” (famously recorded by the Jacksons), there was no doubt that Gardner’s brass-band arrangement spoke to the Crescent City roots of so much American music and, of course, of the musical identity of this band itself.

By Howard Reich
Source: Chicago Tribune

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