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Wynton Marsalis and the JLCO deliver virtuouso performance at Mechanics Hall

Mechanics Hall was packed to the rafters on Sunday night for Music Worcester’s first concert of the New Year. And why shouldn’t it have been? After all, it’s not every night that Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra come to town and this is a group that simply doesn’t disappoint.

The business of the JLCO is, of course, jazz, and, for virtuosity, technical excellence, expressive range, musical curiosity, and an admirable commitment to the new, they set the bar for the field. Sunday’s concert, “Spiritual Sounds and the Jazz Age,” showcased the group’s extraordinary musical chops as well as its in-house compositional talent: The evening’s selections were written by JLCO members Victor Goines and Chris Crenshaw.

Goines’ “Untamed Elegance” is a six-movement suite that celebrates the 1920s, from its politics and burgeoning film industry to the decade’s engagement with new ideas, including the misguided experiment of Prohibition.

On Sunday, the JLCO presented five of its movements (“Bold, Naked and Sensational” was omitted). These provided, for this listener at least, a bracing introduction to Goines’ compositional voice.

His language is rooted in the tradition of Ellington and Basie: richly blended and rhythmically taut ensemble writing interspersed by solo playing of real personality and energy. Indeed, throughout “Untamed Elegance,” instrumental virtuosity reigns supreme.

The opening movement, “The Business of America is Business,” featured an extended saxophone solo for the composer, as well as an athletic moment in the spotlight for trombonist Elliot Mason and a spirited turn near the end for bassist Carlos Henriquez.

In the second, “The Elephant in the Room,” saxophonists Camille Thurman and Paul Nedzela exchanged nervously driving lines while backed up by Willie Jones III’s drum kit; later on, the quartet of trumpets engaged in an exhilaratingly discreet section solo.

Goines took another solo turn in “The ‘It’ Thing,” a sensuous homage to ’20s screen siren Clara Bow, in which the band’s accompaniment was delicately shaded by the addition of a pair of flutes. Pianist Dan Nimmer’s stride-like solo was a highlight of the raucous fourth movement, “Laboratories of Ideas,” while trumpeter Marsalis and saxophonist Sherman Irby exchanged torrid lines in the woozy finale, “Drunk as a Skunk.”

By just about any measure, “Untamed Elegance” is a showpiece. But it’s an awfully smart one: engaging, accessible, characterful, touching — and knowing just when to move on to the next thing.

Chris Crenshaw’s “God’s Trombones,” which filled out the concert’s second half, proved likewise direct. Inspired by James Weldon Johnson’s 1927 book of poems and Crenshaw’s own religious upbringing, this 2012 essay spans (in its completed form) the creation of the cosmos to Judgement Day.

Sunday’s audience was treated to five of its eight movements, beginning with the stately processional of “The Creation” and concluding with the quadripartite tone poem “Let My People Go.” In between came a meditation on “The Prodigal Son,” “Go Down Death — A Funeral Sermon,” and “Noah Built the Ark.”

In “God’s Trombones,” Crenshaw’s writing is, like Goines’, steeped in the best of the jazz band tradition. It’s strongly evocative: the shifts of character in “The Prodigal Son” (from swaggering, raucous party music, to imitations of the snorting of swine and an uplifting final hymn) and “Let My People Go” (with its cacophonous depiction of the Ten Plagues) are bracing.

What’s more, Crenshaw’s ear for counterpoint and color in “God’s Trombones” is remarkable, be that in the breathtakingly natural exchange of solo lines in “Noah Built the Ark” or the serene flute melody (exquisitely played by Dan Block on Sunday) that closes “A Funeral Sermon.”

Even in bowdlerized form, “God’s Trombones” packs an invigorating punch: like the peerless ensemble for which it was written, it’s a potent musical, cultural and spiritual testament that, on Sunday night, was played to the hilt.

by Jonathan Blumhofer
Source: Worcester Magazine

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