Lincoln Center Sizzles on State Street

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis delivers the big picture

 

For seventeen years I’ve been saying that the night I heard Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (pictured above, courtesy of Joe Martinez) in Santa Barbara, CA was one of the “Top 10” live performances I had ever experienced. I can’t say for sure that they played better than that Saturday night in Overture Hall—but I am certain that it was every bit as good. And we can confidently assert that the sold-out audience feels the same way about this stellar group, whether they were hearing them for the first time or not.

Of course, one of the best things, certainly the one with the greatest long-term impact on jazz as an American legacy and in growing new generations of jazz lovers, was Marsalis’s inception of “Essentially Ellington” some twenty-two years ago. This is the program in which any high school group can get sets of music of Ellington tunes each year that have been transcribed from his recordings. Those who wish to submit an audition recording, and fifteen are selected from across North America for a three-day festival of being mentored by members of JLCO, and then playing for and competing against the other bands. Wisconsin has a proud history already with EE, with high school groups from Eau Claire, Beloit and no fewer than eleven times, Sun Prairie High School, giving their regards to Broadway.

Another ensemble that has made multiple trips to EE is the Badger HS jazz band of Lake Geneva, and they had the honor Saturday night of “opening” for Marsalis and his all-stars. Like high school sports teams, the personnel changes a bit from year to year, but standards and experience showed as the group offered up a couple of Ellington tunes and acted like they belonged in Overture Hall.

As for the main event, we were treated to an unbroken journey of ninety minutes that featured tunes of Jelly Roll Morton, some Ellington numbers and an original composition or two. Aside from the fact that all fifteen players (by the way, there are only six different musicians in JLCO now than when I saw them in 2000) are not only superb masters of their instruments, about a dozen of them are equally adept at arranging and composing. With the numbers announced from the stage, and with nearly every player offering multiple solos throughout the evening, we apologize in advance for any highlights that are overlooked.

Unsurpassed musicianship aside, what has made JLCO and Essentially Ellington so special is the heart and vision of Marsalis. True to form, the first thing he did when his band took their places on stage was to ask for another round of applause for the students of Badger HS. And throughout the evening we could glimpse more than once the true spirit of camaraderie and unity that Marsalis fosters; there was light banter teasing pianist Dan Nimmer about “stealing” a solo slot from sax player Paul Nedzela (who reportedly rarely solos)—and then Marsalis remembering that Nimmer hails from Milwaukee. Not only is it an unwritten JLCO “rule” that any player playing in or near their hometown can solo “as much as they want,” but Nimmer’s mother was in the audience. Everyone had fun with that, and of course, we were treated to a significant number of solos from Nimmer (and Paul did give us a solo before all was said and done).

Similarly, Marsalis delighted in explaining that when they prepare a tour program, he usually makes suggestions to arrangers in the group as to what tune they might arrange for the occasion. Apparently bassist Carlos Henriquez resisted Marsalis’s suggestion—and won first Marsalis and now every touring audience with his version of Morton’s “The Crave.” Henriquez, a “Nuyorican” explained that Morton once said that all good jazz has to have a touch of the Spanish. Delightful on its own terms, the number amazed with the tempo shifts that the band made as one.

Another highlight was a portion of Duke Ellington’s “Far East Suite,” which opened with a slow, soft sequence featuring Nimmer with Henriquez bowing his bass, and reed player Victor Goines giving a clinic on clarinet in the bulk of the piece. What sets Goines’s playing apart on clarinet is that he emphasizes the beauty of the instrument’s tone, particularly the low register; most jazzers prefer an edgier, more raucous sound.

An original that stood out was Chris Crenshaw’s movement from a suite based on poems of James Weldon Johnson, “God’s Trombones.” The attraction is self-evident since Crenshaw is a trombone player; the movement was “Let My People Go,” and the work was filled with unique timbres and techniques that at times suggested the groaning of the enslaved Hebrews. It certainly makes one anxious to experience the entire work.

The evening closed with a delicate piano solo (hate to admit I didn’t catch the name) that Nimmer played for his mother; the rest of us reaped the blessing by sitting in the same hall. The final number was a Morton tune, “Little Lawrence,” with Vincent Gardner swapping his trombone for a tuba, and ripping off a deceptively light sounding solo in the bargain. As the band left the stage to a roaring standing ovation, Marsalis returned before Nimmer, Henriquez and drummer Ali Jackson had left, and offered an unnamed, but thoroughly delightful encore.

When I started reviewing in 1988, my editor/mentor (the late Daniel Cariaga) once said “You can’t write a rave review and make it sound like ‘you should’ve been there—you don’t know what you missed.’” A lot has changed in 29 years, but one obvious improvement is that we can all go to YouTube, and Jazz at Lincoln Center’s own link, and soak up some more.

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