Wynton Marsalis and The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra

This is a review of Wynton Marsalis and The Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra. They appeared in concert at The Naples (FL) Philharmonic Center for the Arts on Sunday, January 25, 2009. I urge you to see them if they come anywhere close to your neck of the woods.

You would have thought you were listening to Duke Ellington in person.

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, lead by Grammy and Pulitzer Prize-winning trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, rivals any big band–past or present–in terms of musicianship, inventiveness and precision. The program presented at the sold-out house at the Phil on Sunday evening was a varied one, stylistically and chronologically, but the spirit of The Duke was definitely in the air.

This group, and big bands in general, occupy a singular place in the jazz industry as of 2009. Indeed, the late trumpeter Maynard Ferguson was the last “name” leader of a regularly touring jazz big band. His death in 2006 marked the end of a time when big bands criss-crossed the country as much as 50 weeks out of the year, appearing in clubs, festivals, whatever ballrooms still existed, concerts, and in high schools and colleges. Though Ferguson may have been the “last of the road Mohicans,” big bands are still very much with us. Some have regular residencies in nightclubs and some are put together for special occasions. A select few, like Marsalis’ outfit are affiliated with cultural arts institutions, in this case, Lincoln Center. That sponsorship gives them a lucrative and secure home base, funds to commission original orchestrations, and enables them to tour a few months of the year.

The mission of the 12-year-old group, like the ideals of its leader, is a lofty one. It is dedicated to promoting the appreciation and understanding of jazz through performance, education and preservation.. By the concert’s end, there was no doubt that their mission, on every level, was successfully fulfilled. The performance was stellar, the audience learned plenty from it, and the orchestra demonstrated a reverence for jazz history.

The outspoken leader, who has often been criticized for his opinions on what jazz is and what jazz is not — and who the “real” jazz players were and are — has long been dedicated to making audiences aware of legendary artists like Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. He is tireless in his devotion to the music and the promotion of it, with the result being that he has brought the jazz tradition into the lives of thousands of people who may not have known about it, appreciated it or listened to it otherwise. Whether one agrees with his opinions or not, Marsalis has done more for the cause of jazz than anyone in the last 25 years. Just as one example, his participation in Ken Burns’ documentary on jazz for PBS helped bring the history of American’s only original art form into millions of homes.

But what makes Marsalis and the orchestra so impressive is that, despite their respect for jazz history, they do not dwell totally in the past.

The leader’s dedication to making jazz more accessible to a wide audience was evidenced by the compositions performed in the first half of the program. The theme? Nursery rhymes arranged for a jazz orchestra. Even the most ardent non-jazz fan had to recognize a song like “Rubber Ducky.”

But what a “Rubber Ducky” it was. As arranged by trombonist Vincent Gardner, this “Ducky” morphed into a slow, Latin-oriented cadence, replete with Ellington-like trumpet growls, and a nice, straight-ahead solo by Marsalis.

The venerable “This Old Man,” orchestrated in waltz time by reedman Walter Blandings, again showed the Ellington influence, highlighted by the reed section briefly doubling on clarinet, and a great tenor saxophone solo by Ted Nash.

“It’s Not Easy Being Green,” the gentle, Kermit the Frog anthem, was arranged by Ali Jackson, Jr. Surprisingly, Jackson is the band’s very musical drummer, and it’s refreshing to know that the song he chose to arrange was something sensitive, as opposed to a flag-waving drum feature. This was the first tune that didn’t sound like an Ellington arrangement. In fact, it was more Count Basie-oriented. Jackson, was a driving yet sensitive percussionist throughout the evening. His chart of “Being Green” nicely displayed his sensitive side.

Bassist Carlos Enriquez’ chart of “Brahams Lullaby” was another inventive opus that ended up in the loping, clave’, Latin rhythm, with a wonderful baritone saxophone solo by Paul Nedzela. Nedzela, who earned a Masters Degree from Julliard last year and has played with everyone from Frank Sinatra, Jr., to Benny Golson, has a huge and beautiful tone on the big horn. Like Ellington’s Harry Carney, who played baritone with The Duke for almost 47 years, Nedzela is really the player who gives this band its bottom and holds it together.

The band took a stylistic detour on Mr. Rogers’ “I Like to Take My Time,” arranged by saxophonist Sherman Irby. This was a conventional, west coast jazzlike swinger that could have been charted by Shorty Rogers.

Marsalis, who never, ever hogged the solo limelight, was featured on the last tune before intermission. He played a number of blazing choruses, with just rhythm section backing, on an unnamed tune that was based on the chord changes of the old swing stalwart, “Cherokee.” The trumpeter, who is equally at home playing classical music, writing opera, or recording with Willie Nelson, demonstrated here that he can and does swing with the best of them.

The second half of the program was devoted to the Lincoln Center’s re-creations and interpretations of some of the classic, but often neglected, orchestrations in jazz history. Marsalis prefaced this half of the program by saying, “Our country has not recognized the value of swing.” Be that as it may, The Phil audience surely did after the band’s performance of arranger Jimmy Mundy’s “Fiesta in Brass.” This 1930s era chart, written by a man who wrote for bands like Gene Krupa and Benny Goodman, sounded as fresh as today in the hands of the Lincoln Center Orchestra as it must have in the 1930s. Victor Goines tenor saxophone solo, much in the style of Ellington’s Paul Gonsalves, really swung this one.

Benny Carter, the legendary arranger and multi-instrumentalist who died at the age of 96 in 2003–and who was the last jazz musician to receive a Kennedy Center honor–arranged a version of “All of Me” in 1940. Carter was an expert at writing for reed sections, and almost 70 years after this was written, it is still nearly impossible to play. It holds up beautifully and is testament to Carter’s ageless talents. Pianist Dan Nimmer’s homage to Errol Garner and Vincent Gardner’s trombone solo were standouts.

Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington’s long-time arranger and alter-ego, made an arrangement of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” that utilized the rare talents of the Ellington band to their fullest This could have been Ellington playing at The Phil, as all the soloists sounded like the legends in Dukes’ band. Walter Blanding recalled Ellington saxophonists Ben Webster and Paul Gonsalves, alto saxophonist Sherman Irby echoed Johnny Hodges, and Sean Jones’ trumpet mimicked Cootie Williams. Duke would have been proud.

There’s nothing like a conventional blues to help rock any house, and saxophonist Ted Nash’s orchestration of “Blues in the Night,” written by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, was right on house-rocking target. Nash’s influence as an arranger comes from beyond the swing era. He has evidently listened to writers like Thad Jones and Bob Brookmeyer, who are more concerned with voicings than sheer swing. The soloists, however, particularly a long and rocking one by saxophonist Victor Goines, really got The Phil audience going.

The closer was another Ellington tune, the relatively obscure “Braggin’ in Brass,” written in 1938, but “still hard to play,” said Marsalis. This fast, two-beat swinger featured muted trumpets and muted trombones in passages that were seemingly technically impossible to play correctly. Marsalis effortlessly soloed, in a few stop-time choruses above all the sections, and played with a sense of ease that made listeners feel there was nothing he couldn’t play.

Wynton Marsalis has few equals as a trumpeter and as a bandleader. Each and every one of his introductions served as mini-lectures on jazz history, and I’d bet more than one Phil audience member will be going out to buy an Ellington, Benny Carter–or Wynton Marsalis–CD tomorrow. The motto of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is ” bringing people together through swing.”

It did.

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