Masters of Improvisation Marsalis, Mulligan Kick off Festival

The 58th annual Ravinia Festival opened gloriously Friday night, with two of the foremost improvisers in jazz performing at the top of their powers.

Trumpeter-composer Wynton Marsalis set the tone for the evening with a version of “The Star Spangled Banner” that was steeped in New Orleans parade tradition. Once he and his septet had finished the old tune, redefining it with piquant harmonies and the lush atmosphere of turn-of-the-century New Orleans, there was no doubt that Ravinia’s third annual Jazz in June series had been exuberantly launched.

Marsalis’ “Banner” also foreshadowed the musical language of his major offering for this evening, a vast and sweeping composition titled “In the Sweet Embrace of Life.” Like Marsalis’ treatment of the national anthem, this larger piece drew upon the history and pre-history of jazz. More importantly, like much of Marsalis’ best work in recent years, “In the Sweet Embrace of Life” proved to be a meticulously arranged narrative in which themes appear, reappear and evolve virtually in symphonic fashion.

Ever since Marsalis unveiled his “Majesty of the Blues” several years ago, he has been crafting jazz compositions on an epic scale. In so doing, he has reaffirmed that jazz idioms can sustain the largest musical forms, and that jazz composition and improvisation can co-exist eloquently in the same piece of music.

The specific beauty of “In the Sweet Embrace of Life” lies in its fearless juxtaposition of ancient and contemporary musical ideas. In other words, Marsalis has called upon venerable African musical rituals (chant, hand-claps, relentless ostinatos) as well as modern-day musical techniques (unflinching dissonance, outrageously bent pitches, fast-flying virtuoso passages).

Somehow, by carefully planning the statement and re-statement of his themes, and by infusing all of this music with the spirit of the blues and of the church, Marsalis binds his musical language into a cohesive, comprehensible whole. The gospel-piano statements of Eric Reed, the complex rhythms of drummer Herlin Riley, the fervently lyric playing of Marsalis himself merge into a sound that has become one of the most recognizable in jazz.

Its most remarkable feature, though, is the way its front line blends into a fiercely expressive sonority. Marsalis’ trumpet, Wycliffe Gordon’s trombone, Wes Anderson and Walter Blanding’s reeds together create a color and texture as intense as it is lyrically persuasive.

The evening’s other attraction was a return appearance by Gerry Mulligan, who served as artistic director for Jazz in June during its first two years (Chicago pianist Ramsey Lewis recently took over that post).

If Mulligan’s idiom was less fevered than Marsalis’, it was effective in its own, soft-spoken way. The melodic fluidity and improvisatory ease of Mulligan’s work on baritone saxophone made him one of the world’s foremost practitioners of the instrument, and his performance on this occasion easily matched expectations.

by Howard Reich
Source: Chicago Tribune

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