Wynton’s Shanghai Suite Proves a Glorious Premiere

Shanghai Suite on Downbeat (December 2022)

Several years ago, Wynton Marsalis, during an interview on CNN, was asked about the components of jazz. He said, “The main three components are blues, improvisation… and swing.”
At the recent opening of the 35th concert sea- son of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City, where Marsalis is the managing and artistic director, the orchestra premiered his extended compostion Shanghai Suite, which was first premiered in 2019 at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Shanghai, China, location.

All the components that Marsalis named came into play at one time or another during the nine movements of the suite. It was swing that bracketed the two-hour performance at the center’s Rose Theater, where an Eastern sound was pervasive, shifting from soft, melancholy tones to searing high notes. But in the opening movement, the orchestra was more interested in establishing a swing tempo after Ryan Kisor’s blistering trumpet intro. Vincent Gardner’s trombone accentuated the rhythmic pulse before surrendering it to the nimble pia- nistic runs of Dan Nimmer.

Marsalis served as a highly informed narrator, between each movement providing the background material, partic- ularly where Chinese culture and musical tradition required some interpretation. Marsalis proved a deft and amusing story- teller with an intuitive feel for Chinese folk- lore and myth as he related the journey of Sun Wukong in his quest for immortality. Wukong, legend has it, acquired this key after seven years of training. The journey took a musical form in the second movement, entitled “The Monkey King’s March.” Muted trombones and trumpets flowed behind Carlos Henriquez’s bowed bass, setting the stage for some soulful passages from trumpeter Kenny Rampton.

The blues component evolved in surges of piercing tonality when Marcus Printup was given space to demonstrate his ebullient brilliance. Flutist Ted Nash took his cue from the upper register of Printup’s horn and delighted the crowded theater with a fleeting series of trills and tremolos. Marsalis embellished the pretty sonority with an explosive burst that signaled the humorous blend of muted tones from the trombone section and the other three trumpeters.

Marsalis related that “White Yulan” (named for the first flower of spring) would be the third movement. The flower, a member of the magnolia family, presented Marsalis an opportunity to evoke Billie Holiday and her gardenia hairstyle, emblematic of her beauty and elegance. The tender blend of Victor Goines’ clarinet and alternating pitches of Nash’s flute were in stark contrast to Paul Nedzela’s baritone saxophone, but nonetheless a melodious mode.

Nicole Glover’s soprano swooped into the tune’s delicate beauty, which became all the more splendid with the addition of the muted measures from Marsalis.
Before the orchestra played “Hot Pot,” Marsalis cited the importance of music bringing people together, and this was Printup’s cue to join him in this snappy bounce of a tune featuring alto saxophonist Sherman Irby, Nimmer’s propulsive chords and the chorus of trombones from Vincent Gardner, Chris Crenshaw and Elliot Mason. What began with bassist Henriquez’s slaps ended with drummer Obed Calvaire’s beats on tambourine, which elicited spirited rounds of hand-claps from his cohort.

Marsalis next entertained the audience with a tale about “The Nine Dragons” that had to be summoned in order to complete the construction of a difficult bridge. The Chinese monk doing the conjuring morphed into a Thelonious Monk trope, a whimsical comment courtesy of Marsalis.
After Nedzela brought the dragons on, the trumpet section took charge and, like musical chairs, pushed each other to higher and faster notes until Crenshaw’s trombone entered with a solo that was reminiscent of a nursery rhyme. Then it was back to the trumpets with a fanfare of rippling exchanges that concluded with a collective blast.

“Li Bai’s Blues,” a movement chronicling the downfall of a banished poet, had an edge of lament, with Calvaire’s mallets softly rumbling in anticipation of a clash of cymbals. Sherman Irby’s alto saxophone served as a study in poetic nuance, as if to capture Li Bai’s metaphors. Crenshaw’s mournful trombone closed the tune; it was an airy, lyrical coda.

Contrastingly, there was no air in “The Five Elements” but that was hardly necessary for the guest performer Ye Huang, who is capable of producing a palette of colorful tonality on clarinet. The 24-year-old played like a master of his horn — exuding an array of astonishing phrases that trombonist Elliot Mason answered with verve — and then released the melody for Nash’s flute to apply a delicate lace of fire. Goines added the final touch with robust textures from his tenor saxophone.

Marsalis recalled a memorable meeting with the great trumpeter Buck Clayton in 1982. “I was dressed in a lime green suit with white shoes,” Marsalis said. “And Buck said, ‘One day you’re gonna play as good as you look.’” There was much more to the story involving Clayton’s incident in Shanghai back in the ’30s, and to commemorate it, the orchestra stretched out on “From The Casanova To The Peace Hotel To Right Here Tonight.” A repetition of beats ended and then slowly settled into a unison of horns, providing Huang with a harmonic platform to launch a finely conceived solo, the notes literally leaping from under his fingers.

While it was a concert to celebrate the opening of JALC’s 35th season, there was no room for nostalgia, though there was space for the orchestra to fully test the limits of musical expression. The preceding movement was invested in a potpourri of styles, from China, to New Orleans, to the borough of Manhattan. And it was left to the final movement to bring it all home, much in the manner of the vigor that erupted at the very start of the evening. “The Shanghai Skyline” leaped from the charts, particularly when Glover delivered a breathtaking solo with- out seeming to take a breath. It was another unforgettable solo in an evening brimming with them. With speed and dexterity, she presented her version of the skyline, a mixture of jagged but lovely ruptures all carefully envisioned in a pleasant symmetry of invention. There were brief iterations of classical Dixieland, some bebop dollops and lots of modernity.

Serving as a call to arms (or fingers) and a challenge to her bandmates, the first responder was pianist Nimmer, who issued his own hard-driving exuberance, showering the room with clusters of tingling arpeggios. Then came Marsalis with all the finesse and power Clayton had predicted. As ever, it was vintage Marsalis, and the articulation on his horn matched the torrent of words on this occasion. It compared favorably with a video clip of him strolling the club in Shanghai back in 2019, his horn practically to the ear of a spectator.

If the coming season at JALC is anything like this evening’s affair, listeners can expect — like the lime green suit and white shoes — something wonderful, something as glorious and resplendent as the harbinger of Shanghai Suite.

by Herb Boyd
Source: Downbeat Magazine (December 2022)

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