Wynton Marsalis / LCJO at the Kimmel Center: December 11, 2005

Victor L. Schermer By

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The Harlem Nutcracker is a complex, humorous, and indeed wondrous piece for which the LCJO is an ideal performance vehicle.
Wynton Marsalis / Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra
Kimmel Center,
Philadelphia, PA
December 11, 2005

On this wintry Sunday evening, three musical phenomena converged at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia: Wynton Marsalis, The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (hereinafter "LCJO ), and "The Harlem Nutcracker, a composition of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn based on Tchaikowsky's famed "Nutcracker Suite. The result was a highly charged and delightful evening of big band music-making. Let's take them one by one and then see how they all came together.

Wynton Marsalis is a jazz icon, the most famous and ubiquitous member of a prominent jazz family from New Orleans, director of the LCJO, and an accomplished trumpeter as well as entrepreneur, mover, and shaker in the music business. In this performance, Mr. Marsalis stayed on top of the whole event (literally positioning himself in the elevated row of the trumpet section), took several fine, fabulous-sounding solos, and provided light-hearted repartee and informative historical comments for the audience's edification. As Kimmel Program Director, Mervon Mehta, pointed out in his introduction, this was Marsalis' third performance at the Kimmel, and he is now, in Mehta's declaration, "part of the Kimmel Center family.

The LCJO is Mr. Marsalis' creation, has established itself as the resident jazz band at Lincoln Center, and, as he mentioned, was formed out of the remaining members of the Duke Ellington Orchestra and Marsalis' own touring group, thus conjoining two generations of musicians. In the first half of the concert, the group perfomed a potpourri of tunes magnificently. Nearly all the players were featured in solos, and each—regardless of the wide variation in age—showed him or herself (there was one woman in the group, reed player Anne von Kleist) to be a mature artist with phenomenal chops. As the Playbill amply exemplified, each member of the group is individually a significant member of the jazz and/or pops scene in New York and internationally. A highlight was baritone saxophonist Joe Temperly's solo rendition of the song "Merry Christmas. (Temperly is a seasoned musician who worked with the Ellington band.) His melodious sound and Ellingtonian improvisations carried this over-played tune into new dimensions. Good baritone sax players are few and far between, and Temperly is up there with the likes of Gerry Mulligan and Pepper Adams. His sonority, in fact, is superior to either of these giants.

"The Harlem Nutcracker is a complex, humorous, and indeed wondrous piece for which the LCJO is an ideal performance vehicle. While joyous and in the spirit of the season, it is also impregnated with Strayhorn's phrasings, which give it the melancholy moments that represent Strayhorn's contribution to the blues tradition. In many ways, it seemed more like Strayhorn's work than Ellington's, but the two musicians were so merged in their composing efforts that it may never be known who did the bulk of the composing and arranging. The piece was composed when they were on the West Coast in the 1950's. An edition of it is published by G. Schirmer. The story line recapitulates the life of an African-American woman who grew up and raised a family in the Harlem Renaissance in the '20s and '30s. In this way, the piece becomes the story of the Harlem community and all the changes it has gone through, and by extension, is the story of all African-Americans. The piece contains the following movements, which give something of the flavor of what Ellington and Strayhorn did, i.e. to make jazz "puns out of both the titles and melodies extracted from Tchaikowsky's score: Overture; Toot Toot Tootie Toot; Peanut Brittle Brigade; Sugar Rum Sherry; Entre Acte; Vodka Voute; Chinoiserie; Arabesque Cookie; Dance of the Floreadores; Finale.

My one regret about this concert is that the first set of varied music appeared to reflect a retrograde influence of Wynton Marsalis on the jazz scene. I had heard several musician friends refer to this problem, and now I understood what they meant. Marsalis' dual preoccupation with New Orleans jazz and the Ellingtonian legacy tended to give the arrangements a stereotypical flavor of pre-modern jazz. Even their renditions of Monk's Oscar T and Coltrane's "Greensleeves downplayed Monk's and Trane's own intentions. And the excessive use of cup mutes to give that old-time "wah-wah sound trivialized the music. I also felt that not enough credit was given to the Basie influence on the group's arrangements and solos. Duke Ellington is immortal and his work set the stage for much of contemporary jazz, but there are many other influences, and jazz needs to keep evolving, or it loses some of its vitality. In other words, I wish that Mr. Marsalis, who is one of the most influential members of the jazz community, would give more of a nod to contemporary developments.

But this concern was well overshadowed by energy and skill of the LCJO, and the performance of "Harlem Nutcracker was unforgettable and a sheer pleasure.

Visit Wynton Marsalis and Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra on the web.

Photo Credit
Wynton Marsalis by Richard Timbers II
Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra by Victor L. Schermer


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