Wynton Marsalis and JALC concert at Chicago Orchestra Hall
There’s a palpable sense of occasion in the air when the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra returns to Orchestra Hall, and you feel it as soon as you walk into the room.
The presence of so many listeners seated on stage around the band, crowding the terrace area behind it and filling every remaining seat in the house distinguishes this event from most concerts in the grand old venue. Major performances unfold here many nights a week, in other words, but Chicagoans turn these JALC appearances – led by the band’s music director, Wynton Marsalis – into something of a civic occasion.
That was especially the case on Friday evening, with Symphony Center’s jazz series in the midst of celebrating its 20th season, an important achievement in economically fraught times. Despite the vicissitudes of life in the early 21st century, or perhaps because of them, Chicagoans consistently come together en masse around this event.
And though one wishes that a Chicago-based ensemble also had been able to build this kind of following during the past couple decades or more, Marsalis and the JALC certainly have shown how it’s done.
This time, Marsalis and colleagues devoted their program to the work of two of the most prolific composers in jazz, Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus. By spotlighting music from both artists’ enormous oeuvres in a single program, the orchestra shed light on the similarities of jazz giants often perceived as contrasting figures.
For if audiences long have admired the intricate inner workings of scores by Ellington (and his indispensable collaborator Billy Strayhorn), they also have applauded the raw energy and near-frenzy of Mingus’ oft-volcanic orchestral works. Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra flipped that equation somewhat, summoning enormous power and force in Ellington and Strayhorn’s compositions and bringing a measure of sonic clarity to Mingus’.
The Ellington-Strayhorn portion of the evening focused on exotic, infrequently performed repertoire exploring the sounds of distant cultures. Decades after it was composed, the “Far East Suite” remains a marvel of intense orchestral color, lush instrumental harmony and complex layering of themes, all evident in JALC’s performance of key movements. In “Amad,” trombonist Chris Crenshaw’s long, wailing lines evoked a call to prayer, his solos backed by a swirl of vivid ensemble color. Saxophonist Sherman Irby’s dusky opening tones and fervent phrase-making in “Isfahan” would have been striking even if he had been playing alone on stage, but the soft cushion of orchestral sound behind him enhanced the effect and underscored the degree of control the JALC players bring to this repertoire.
Ellington’s “The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse” dates from after Strayhorn’s death (in 1967) and shows the master still at the forefront of investigating non-Western sonorities. The “Chinoiserie” section brought forth a galvanic solo from tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding and the jolt of the ensemble going full tilt alongside him.
Mingus’ music surely builds on Ellington’s precedents (as does almost everything in jazz), vigorously developing its harmonic, rhythmic and tonal vocabularies. The centerpiece here was Ron Westray’s arrangement of four pieces from Mingus’ “Tijuana Moods” album, the orchestra riding the twists and turns of this tremendously ornate music with considerable technical elan. Marsalis’ whirring, high-register trumpet flurries on “Dizzy Moods,” Elliot Mason’s lusty trombone exhortations in “Los Mariachis” and Victor Goines’ muscular tenor saxophone solo in “Ysabel’s Table Dance” stood out.
But, ultimately, it was the riot of sound that the ensemble produced, while somehow making sure that the motifs of individual orchestral sections rang out, that represented the greatest feat of this performance. That the band also looked at Mingus’ introspective side, in a warmly whispered version of his “Self-Portrait in Three Colors,” deepened one’s appreciation for the composer’s range and the performers’ sensitivity to it.
Midway during the concert, Marsalis spoke to the audience about the importance of the 20th anniversary of Symphony Center’s jazz season and the man who has programmed and nurtured it, Jim Fahey. Citing the “integrity” and “class” of Fahey’s work, Marsalis asked the audience to rise, while Fahey – with characteristic reluctance to step into the limelight – gingerly walked onstage, embraced Marsalis, took a quick bow and fled.
Fahey deserved every decibel of applause he received, and then some.