JALC Concert; New Releases by Stanley Clarke and Kendra Shank

Nick Catalano By

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JALC Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis
The Songs We Love
Jazz at Lincoln Center, Rose Room
New York City, New York
March 29-31, 2007

One of the most intriguing jazz concerts in memory occurred at Jazz at Lincoln Center this past weekend. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, at this point the most versatile group of big band musicians anywhere, tackled a repertoire of songs which are just as notable for the arrangements made of them as their compositional excellence. Because the selections came from different eras, styles and traditions, only a band with uncanny versatility could deliver truly authentic performances of each one. The JALC orchestra achieved this and, in doing so, set a new standard for big band jazz.

The evening began with a rendition of Duke Ellington's arrangement of "Sunny Side of the Street. An outstanding solo from altoist Sherman Irby, succeeded in capturing the slurring blue note style of the Johnny Hodges era of saxists. The band's rhythmic sense effortlessly transported patrons back to the halcyon days of swing. An abrupt stylistic segue ensued with a performance of Bill Russo's memorable arrangement of "Fascinatin'Rhythm for the Stan Kenton Orchestra. Authentic brass and reed textures were the order of the day and were nicely punctuated by solos from altoist Victor Goines, and trombonists Vincent Gardner and Chris Crenshaw. Dizzy Gillespie's legendary arrangement of his own composition "A Night In Tunisia was up next, and the band articulated the chart with aplomb.

At this point, noticeable buzzing in the audience could be heard as folks shared their amazement at the band's wondrous adaptability. A journey back into the naissance of the big bands followed with an arrangement by Don Redman (the pivotal arranger for Fletcher Henderson's band) of "Tea for Two. Paul Whiteman strains could be discerned as the JALC orchestra interpreted the chart with formidable accuracy while director Wynton Marsalis soloed contemplatively in the rear of Rose Hall. Arrangements by Billy Byers ("I Left My Heart In San Francisco ) and Oliver Nelson ("Down By The River Side ) came next with energetic solo work from trombonist Elliot Mason—the newest member of the orchestra.

After intermission the band played Ernie Wilkins' arrangement of "Autumn Leaves, featuring solo work from veteran baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley. Benny Carter's arrangement of "All of Me followed, with Marsalis first noting that Carter was the composer "who taught us how to write for 5 saxophones. The JALC orchestra's own Ted Nash was the next featured arranger as the group played his big band version of John Coltrane's memorable interpretation of "My Favorite Things. The entire reed section played soprano saxophones harmonized in the Coltrane modal vein. Next, for sheer romance, few jazz charts have ever equaled Billy Strayhorn's penning of Rhapsody In Blue. A suitable solo from pianist Walter Blanding captured Gershwin's famous triumph.

I don't know of an arrangement that contributed more to the chart-topping success of a jazz band than Wild Bill Davis's "April In Paris for the Count Basie band. This monster chart was a closer that resoundingly capped off the theme of the show.

Throughout the concert, the stamp of Wynton Marsalis was omnipresent. He has approached leadership of the JALC orchestra with a spirit of democracy and succeeded in making his band cohorts important names in jazz. Everyone gets significant solo time, and all share in the glory of this luminous aggregation.

New Releases: A comprehensive DVD of Stanley Clarke's music arrived this month. Dubbed Night School: An Evening With Stanley Clarke & Friends, the session contains some wonderful work by musicians associated with Clarke through the years. Jazz fans won't want to miss the dextrous improvisational lines executed by Stevie Wonder in an up-tempo version of Coltrane's "Giant Steps." Rarely do we get to hear Stevie reveal his jazz chops.

Fifteen years ago I wrote about an unknown vocalist from Seattle—Kendra Shank. Few singers since that time have received better critical commentary than this chanteuse, who has made Gotham her base. In her first CD Afterglow she exhibited unique spark and since then has paid more than her share of dues in jazz boîtes around town. I remember her relating her great reverence for Abbey Lincoln, who helped her get settled in Manhattan and who had great influence over her singing. Now, Kendra shows her appreciation with an homage to her mentor: The First Abbey Lincoln Songbook. The CD spans the Lincoln spectrum from African chants to folk melodies and reveals the full arsenal of Shank's vocal weaponry.


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