Marsalis’ new work snappy, satisfying

EAST LANSING — Even Wynton Marsalis would admit that brevity has never been his strong suit as a composer. His Pulitzer Prize-winning jazz oratorio “Blood on the Fields” ran three hours, and his previous classically oriented works include the 45-minute string quartet “Octoroon Balls” and the 100-minute oratorio “All Rise” for orchestra, jazz band and chorus.

But Marsalis’ new extended work, “Two in 3,” clocked in at 15 minutes in its world premiere Wednesday by the Michigan State University Symphony Orchestra and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The simple charm of the materials and distilled concentration of their development was one of the greatest rewards of the piece — a lyrically swaying jazz waltz that never mortgages its vernacular idiom as it spreads across an orchestral landscape. If less ambitious than his earlier works for classical forces, it also eschews the verbosity that sometimes undercuts Marsalis’ best intentions.

“Two in 3” takes its title from a metaphorical pas de deux for lovers in 3-beat waltz time. Marsalis has said that the specific inspiration was the notion that all the tenderness and volatility of a romantic relationship are manifest in the first glance between principals. Saxophones opened the piece with a four-note, stair-step phrase that suggests an eyebrow rising after a sideways glance. Some questioning volleys between reeds and strings coalesced quickly into the full jazz band swinging on top of bass and drums.

Marsalis mostly treated the jazz band as a single entity in a kind of concerto grosso; the band glided into the spotlight, often with an improvising soloist leading the way, and then retreated into a broader texture of strings. The melodies were restless, in transit. Sometimes the static minor-key harmony evoked an adventure; others times richly altered chords suggested bedroom eyes and satin sheets.

Rhythm and groove are always forthright — Lincoln Center drummer Ali Jackson, a native Detroiter, was an invaluable resource — though I wished Marsalis had injected more mystery by breaking up the beat more frequently. There were churchy passages with tambourine slaps, some Latin rhythm and an especially vivacious old-timey ragtime section in which the rhythm shifted between 3- and 4-beat meters and clarinets and violin played a rippling line over punchy orchestra kicks.

There was a perhaps inevitable full-ensemble climax, a dissonant, argumentative crunch. But the close was a surprise: The music expired quietly, the players literally vocalizing a soft “ha” every three beats that sounded like breathing. Postcoital bliss or relief at the end of a troubled affair?

Conductor Leon Gregorian guided the MSU players securely through the score, and while you might have wished for more highly characterized string and solo wind playing, the students did themselves proud, with a special nod to the orchestra’s flutes. The Lincoln Center band was unimpeachable, focused and expressive.

Earlier, an unusual battle of the bands before intermission found the symphony and jazz band each performing a version of Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt Suite.” The orchestra played Grieg’s beautiful original and, after each movement, the Lincoln Center band played Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s dramatic reinvention of the same music in their idiom of talking horns and frisky grooves. It was really an essay in the art of orchestration — “Ase’s Death,” defined by hushed strings in Grieg’s original, becomes a New Orleans funeral march with weeping trumpets in Ellington and Strayhorn’s version.

On its own, the Lincoln Center band also played two Marsalis arrangements of jazz classics, Jackie McLean’s tart “Appointment in Ghana” and Bud Powell’s intense “Un Poco Loco.” After the formality of the Grieg demonstration — it’s interesting but long — it was fun to hear the band cut loose. Marsalis’ storytelling solo on “Appointment” was probably the most exciting music of the night, and it was a kick to see guest bassist Rodney Whitaker, the Detroit-born former Lincoln Center band member who now heads the jazz program at MSU, push his former boss by digging deep into the groove.

by Mark Stryker
Source: Detroit Free Press

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