Musical Comfort Food: Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Focuses on Master Composers

The title of this weekend’s concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center is “Masters of Form,” and as Vincent Gardner, who served as musical director for the first half, announced at the start, the name is a play on words in that it refers to “forms in music, the kind of established forms that we have ingrained in us, like the 12-bar blues” and the 32-bar popular song.

“But it also alludes to those people who create forms that challenge us,” he added, “the architects, the people who do that in music and in other disciplines, including architecture. We’re talking about all those great people who have taken what we know and shown us that we don’t know anything at all about it.”

The main event of the two-act performance was the premiere of “Usonian Structures,” an original eight-part suite commissioned by Jazz at Lincoln Center from composer, saxophonist, conductor, and educator Andy Farber — with, the program tells us, “the generous support of Jody and John Arnhold.” This particular concert was originally scheduled for April 2020, but was pushed back by almost four years by the pandemic.

In the first act, Mr. Gardner led the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra through six classic works by five of jazz’s greatest composers, from two early masters, Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington, to more modern-era giants, Charles Mingus and Wayne Shorter.

Morton’s 1930 “Little Lawrence” (arranged by Victor Goines) gave us New Orleans-style hot jazz on a foundation of ragtime, wherein Mr. Gardner switched to tuba and guided the orchestra through a succession of shorter strains. Ellington’s 1940 “Harlem Air Shaft” is a swinging riff number that’s also famously a beautiful piece of programmatic music, using the image of the center of a tenement block to paint a vivid picture of uptown life.

Mingus’s “Don’t Be Afraid, The Clown’s Afraid Too” (arranged by Sy Johnson and Ron Westray) also incorporated visual elements, sounds that suggested a circus and a parade, and told a distinct narrative. Shorter’s “Infant Eyes” (arranged by Wynton Marsalis) was a rapturous, tranquil piece that used nearly the entire orchestra in short solos playing off each other.

The first half also included a 2010 composition by the orchestra’s lead alto saxophonist, Sherman Irby, “Twilight Sounds (for Norman Lewis).” Originally part of a program of original works inspired by painters and paintings, it starts with a boppish line heard from multiple horns in counterpoint, and from there makes use of a balance between chaos and control. It repeatedly suggested a train falling off the track and then somehow getting back on. This came as close as I’ve heard the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra come to sounding like a free-jazz era large form ensemble like that of Sun Ra or William Parker, including an Eric Dolphy-inspired bass clarinet solo from Chris Lewis.

Andy Farber took to the stage at the start of Act 2 to explain that “Usonian Structures” was inspired by the life and work of Frank Lloyd Wright, the title referring to Lloyd’s acronym for the United States of North America.

The first piece, “Oak Park Overture,” took its cue from Wright’s use of triangles, represented in the music by three-note triads played at the start by the trumpets, including some orchestral colors we associate with American classicists like Aaron Copland. The second, “Unity Temple,” Wright’s most celebrated House of Worship, elaborated on an idea from gospel music, call-and-response. The piece was essentially Sherman Irby offering a short phrase — the kind that was once called a “break” rather than a solo — which was answered in kind by the full ensemble. Mr. Farber described it as a “Sherman sermon.”

The fourth movement, “So Cal Sci Fi,” elaborated on Wright’s use of “textile blocks,” in houses particularly in the Los Angeles area, which are prominently seen in film and television. The piece might have been subtitled “Henry Mancini In the Twilight Zone,” in that it started with a quirky, disjointed intro from the flutes and woodwinds leading in and out of a lushly cinematic theme featuring pianist Dan Nimmer, as well as a solo on the rare bass trumpet by Elliot Mason, one of the orchestra’s longtime trombonists.

“Music of the Stream,” inspired by Wright’s iconic Fallingwater house in Pennsylvania, put us in mind of painting more than architecture, with verdant colors in a circular pattern that coalesced into a big-toned tenor saxophone solo by one of the orchestra’s younger members, Abdias Armenteros. “Toadstools & Typewriters” likewise spotlighted Chris Lewis on tenor, starting with ascending fifths that, as inspired by Wright’s Johnson Wax Headquarters building at Racine, Wisconsin, are meant to convey a feeling of being underwater.

Like Ellington and Morton a century ago, Mr. Farber made consistently creative use of the blues form throughout the 60-minute work, particularly in the last piece, “Guggenheim: Prelude & Blues.” For the finale, Mr. Farber illuminated the connection between one of the most complex and unusual buildings ever constructed and the basic blues — he elaborated on how the skylight is divided into 12 parts and he was thus motivated to write a 12-note motif. The piece went through distinct subsections, stopped and started and changed tempos, as in the transition between solos by guest guitarist James Chirillo and then trumpeter Marcus Printup. The final solo statement of the night was from baritone saxophonist Paul Nedzela.

Overall, this may be my favorite long-form original Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra work since Wynton Marsalis’s “Big Train” (1999); here’s hoping there’s a proper recording soon.

Wright’s concept was to build houses that were “simple and utilitarian” with “no attics, no basements, and little ornamentation.” It might be ironic that Mr. Farber’s compositions were about more than form itself, but were richly layered, each with different musical textures and rhythms that made all eight movements immediately different from each other.

Yet, in many ways, the simplest movement, “Usonian Home: Pipe & Slippers,” was among the most effective, a gently swinging, low-key piece in the tradition of Neal Hefti’s great works for Count Basie’s New Testament band, like “Li’l Darlin’” and “Softly with Feeling.” It started with a three-note motif as an intro and point of departure, with Mr. Chirillo reprising Freddie Green’s essential contribution to the Basie beat, and wound around a muted solo by trumpeter Kenny Rampton. For jazz lovers, this was musical comfort food.

by Will Friedwald
Source: The New York Sun

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