Back in the day, this battle of the bands at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark would have been declared a TKO before the first note sounded.
In this corner, the heavyweight champions, the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band, boasting legendary namesMoody, Heath, D'Rivera, Slide Hamptonplaying beloved classics by Dizzy, Monk, Golson et al. And the challengers, a seemingly overmatched assortment of younger cats from New Orleans, playing brand new music.
But the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra had some secret weapons for this Nov. 25 concertmembers raised or schooled, moreover, in America's most musical city. And their leader, Irvin Mayfield Jr., proved a triple threata dynamic trumpet soloist, captivating figure on stage, and most of all, an extraordinarily gifted composer and arranger. Mayfield unveiled his latest work, Rising Tide, a suite that grew out of Katrina and that was commissioned by NJPAC and Prudential Insurance.
Though the subject is somber, and the chanting that introduced each of the three movements"Hold That Water,'' "Better Get to Higher Ground'' and "High Water''was full of foreboding, the music rushed ahead, carrying the audience along on a surging stream of sound. Brass sections shouted and saxophones moaned in familiar call-and-response patterns, while fire-breathing soloists soared above.
"It's a Creole ThingYou Just Don't Understand'' was another brilliant piece, featuring the passionate clarinet work of Evan Christopher. The work is a synopsis of New Orleans music, evolving from a darkly-liquid noirish blues to a tango to a Dixieland ensemble sound to some rollicking r&b piano licksthen back to Christopher's unaccompanied coda. Mayfield closed the first set playing the gospel- inspired "May His Soul Rest In Peace,'' dedicated to his father, who drowned in Katrina's aftermath.
The gauntlet was thrown, and the Gillespie tribute band was up to the challenge, opening with a quintessential bebop tune, Tadd Dameron's "Hot House,'' and reeling off Bop 40 hits for the next two hours. Everyone shone in the solo spotlight, especially trumpeter Roy Hargrove (on the nostalgic "I Remember Clifford''), altoist Antonio Hart, tenor man James Moody and the band's singer, Roberta Gambarini. She and Moody hooked up for a scat duet on "Moody's Moods,'' a bluesy ballad, and all five trumpeters came out front and traded licks on the grand finale, ''Blue and Boogie.''
What great sound NJPAC offers! Every note came across crystal clear. Mayfield called it "the best concert hall in America.'' He gets no argument here.