Swing-Era Orchestrations Handled With Assurance

So much is changing so rapidly in the institutional jazz world that Jazz at Lincoln Center’s “Golden Pen,” Saturday’s concert of swing-era arrangements, sounded like a fairly normal programming ploy. Five years ago, the idea to display a series of often-brilliant arrangements might have seemed radical; it is now rare but accepted practice, and the pleasure gained is less from novelty and more from the sensuousness of the music itself.

What made Saturday’s concert, at Alice Tully Hall, out of the ordinary was the utter assurance the orchestra brought to much of the music. Both Lincoln Center’s orchestra and the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band have been reaching for a new level of authority recently, and they’ve been getting it. “The Golden Pen,” for the most part, offered a set of exquisitely sculptured miniatures that exposed exactly how profound, and extreme, the jazz orchestrations of the 1920’s and 30’s were.

The majority of the pieces were mosaics of riffs, eschewing traditional, songlike narrative melodies. On “Queer Notions,” arranged by Horace Henderson for the Fletcher Henderson band, the composition had nothing to do with the popular song, in its place suggesting a narrative constructed out of short fragments of melodies, repeated and driving. On “9:20 Special,” the band caught the warm, full hum of the arrangement, all cylinders smoothly pumping away paying tribute to a mechanical age.

In part, the band’s new level of achievement comes from the integration of the rhythm section and the horns. The pianist Cyrus Chestnut has a deep sense of time, and his solos, riff laden and rife with blues ideas, suggested an older type of swing. And the bassist Reginald Veal and the drummer Kenny Washington were swinging for the whole night, playing idiomatically, but also loosening up as well; they and the horns rarely found themselves apart.

But the improvising was spectacular, too. Some of the younger members of the band, including the trumpeters Marcus Printup and Ryan Kisor, the trombonists Wycliffe Gordon and Ronald Westray, and the saxophonists Sherman Irby and Wess Anderson, seem to have gained a new concision from forcing their solos into short spaces allotted them, and wrangling with a swing vocabulary that values editing.

The band was conducted by Wynton Marsalis and by Loren Schoenberg; they both used dynamics, and on several occasions the orchestra took its volume down to a trickle of sound. On “Big Jim’s Blues,” by Mary Lou Williams, the orchestra stretched out the slow blues with the sort of groove that seemed as if it should last for ever, dreamy and evocative, emotionally immediate and completely entrancing.

by Peter Watrous
Source: The New York Times

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