Umbria Jazz: Days 4-6, July 13-15, 2009
The dork was the evening's featured composer, and after a moment of silence in which all musicians stood and faced their left, Lewis' music commenced with fiendish swing on bass (Leonard Jones, David Williams) and drums (Dushun Moseley), some members giving whistle-blast accents. Then Lewis stood for the first solo, an atonal, violent performance that left him visibly red in the face, before moving to the front to conduct. (Baritone saxophonist Mwata Bowden was listed as conductor in the program, but is actually the ensemble's director.)
Though this first piece, "The Chicken Skin II," featured unique and riveting solos by alto saxophonists Edwin Daugherty and Khabeer Ernest Dawkins, and flutist (and current AACM president) Nicole Mitchell, it was ultimately a composition for the full orchestrawhich in this case includes three vocalists (Dee Alexander, Taalib Din Ziyad, and Saalik Ziyad).
In fact the singer's parts, mostly wordless, were the most compelling in all three of the program's compositions. In "Chicken Skin" they sang in unusual harmony against shimmering horns and strings, and Taalib-Din Ziyad stood for a melodic scat solo that ventured far from the usual vocabulary. The much quieter "Fractals" placed them in a whispery vocal setting, though this time both Ziyads improvised: Mostly counterpoint, they nonetheless responded to and referenced each other's phrasing and diction. "Shuffle" belonged to Alexander, whose vocal used a more conventional vocabulary and rhythmic sense; it ended with her repeating "shuffle-shuffle-shuffle" over bare piano chords that gradually grew and subsumed her.
Though Lewis conducted, during the unbroken combination of "Angry Bird" and "Shuffle" he would take the podium only for a brief ensemble passage or to bring in a soloistthen walk offstage, reappearing again the next time. Whether it was a joke or an indication of how little direction these musicians needed, it's hard to say. But the latter was certainly true: The ensemble knew their stuff, and to call them "daring" wouldn't begin to cover it.
Enthralling as the music was, however, it was exhausting. Between its dense textures and far-flung melodies, this writer left the theater mentally drained. He/she who can endure six such performances is fortified indeed.
"We're here to swing," trumpeter Wynton Marsalissaid in opening the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra's concert at Arena Santa Giuliana. The show was billed as a replication of JALC's performance at the Kennedy Center on January 19, as part of the Obama inaugural festivities. No word on whether Marsalis told the Obamas he was there to swing, too.