Review: ‘Comin’ Home to Harlem’

Jazz at Lincoln Center strolled uptown for an inaugural spring fund-raiser at the Apollo Theater. Host Whoopi Goldberg recalled the tradition and legacy of the historic venue, “where jazz was made and loved, and where swingin’ is revered.” Goldberg contributed an abbreviated history of the Harlem Renaissance, and the innovations in jazz, blues and swing through the last half-century. Also remembered were such landmark nightspots and dance halls as Minton’s, the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom.

The narrative tour through Harlem was nostalgic and informative, but it was the glory of the music that told the real story. Artistic director Wynton Marsalis fronted the core of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. The septet re-created vintage Ellingtonia with Bubber Miley’s “Black and Tan Fantasy,” heightened by Marsalis’ biting trumpet and Ron Westray’s loping, muted trombone. The infectious funeral dirge evoked the sound and pulse of a long-ago era.

Roland Hanna, a grand jazz pianist and somewhat of a legend, plays with great imagination and an elfin touch of wit. His rolling echo of Harlem stride was aptly demonstrated with Fats Waller’s timeless confessional “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”

A gorgeous Vanessa Williams, moonlighting from her Tony-nominated perf in “Into the Woods,” contributed a satiny take on Irving Berlin’s “Harlem on My Mind,” the classic introduced by Ethel Waters in 1933. “Longing to be low-down,” Williams boasted a warm, sophisticated sheen to the accompaniment of the smoothly crisp Marsalis septet.

Bop was born at Minton’s on ll8th Street, and “Round Midnight” became a hallowed anthem of the period. The septet incorporated swift-changing tempos, from a dancing bolero to a free-swinging romp on the Thelonius Monk classic, and it was deftly framed by Marsalis’ clean, wide-open solo.

Savion Glover tapped to a freshly minted original Marsalis comp, “Petite Suite.” Glover danced hard and fast, in his trademark hunched-over style, with dreadlocks masking his smile and expression. His spirited and heavy-footed tapping boasts extraordinary pace and imagination, despite a style that is markedly short of grace.

Stevie Wonder, who made his Apollo debut at 12, returned for a rare Manhattan concert appearance. The composer-singer wrapped up the eve with a crowdpleasing miniconcert, and he pulled out all the stops. Reflecting upon the extraordinary history of the Apollo, Wonder joined the Marsalis group for a dazzling piano turn on John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” For his own hit composition “The Secret Life of the Planets,” Wonder pulled out his harmonica to trade witty phrases with Marsalis’ trumpet.

The closer was a romping “Living in the City,” which found a devoted hand-clapping audience joining in the refrain. The tune was heightened by Marsalis’ romping horn and Wess “Warmdaddy” Anderson’s alto sax solo. To paraphrase Waller lyricist Andy Razaf, “The joint was jumpin’, really jumpin’!”

Source: Variety

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