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Wynton Marsalis/Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra at Chicago Symphony Center


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Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra
Wynton Marsalis, Musical Director
Symphony Center, Chicago
January 27, 2006
The endless debate about Wynton Marsalis shows no sign of ever abating. Whether the Lincoln Center musical director/trumpeter is the greatest heir to the jazz tradition or a curmudgeonly and didactic reactionary who's declared himself the final authority and what jazz is and, especially, isn't, probably depends on your point of view. One thing, though, is certain: he and the 15-piece Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra put on a consistently good show.
The band's performance at Chicago's Symphony Center was pretty typical of what they do: impeccably played, large-ensemble arrangements of the jazz-composer canon; smaller-group performances of the same; beautiful, crystal-clear horn voicings; a great drummer (currently Ali Jackson); a host of very good soloists, including Marsalis; and, yes, lots of spoken explanation from the musical director about the composers, the history of jazz, and why what the group is playing is good.
Marsalis is wordy, and in his teaching mode, he can be annoying. But he's usually pretty affable and often droll; certainly he shows no sign on the bandstand of being any sort of martinet, despite the band's whip-tight playing.

The first set started strong with a rumbling-yet-restrained version of Jelly Roll Morton's "New Orleans Bump. With Marsalis as the lone trumpet voice, the band attacked the tune's syncopations with real enthusiasm and group veteran Victor Goines turned in a charming—and enjoyably modern—clarinet solo. Tadd Dameron's arrangement of his own "Dameron Stomp was very good as well, tautly swinging and enlivened by a sharp, rippling ensemble head. Walter Blanding's alto choruses against contrasting brass accents led into a majestic tenor break, again from Goines—pretty irresistable.

Bernice Petkere's "Close Your Eyes was performed by the trio of young pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Carlos Henriquez and drummer Ali Jackson. Nimmer's a pretty interesting pianist, and his playing was marked by short, delicate phrases with lots of space between them; his lines weren't devoid of quirkiness or dissonance, but at the same time they grooved abundantly.

Marsalis' own composition "Continuous fit right in with this set of jazz warhorses, and not surprisingly: the exoticism of the piece's ambivalent harmonies wouldn't have been out of place on a Gil Evans arrangement from the late 1950s. Still, the ensemble parts were lush and swaying and all the saxophonists shone. The set concluded with Eddie Durham's early-swing arrangement of "Blue Moon, a piece stuffed with sprightly, surging ensemble sections, invigorating call-and-response between the brass and reed sections, and a frighteningly difficult solo from trumpeter Sean Jones.

A pretty good first set. Things got tougher for the second set, which consisted of the band's large-ensemble arrangement of John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme. This was documented on last year's Palmetto CD, and if you loved the recording, you would have loved the performance.

If not—well, then, you had a long hour ahead of you. There's absolutely nothing wrong with attempting to arrange Coltrane's quartet classic for big band. Written section parts from transcribed Coltrane solos? Who wouldn't want to hear that? But after hearing this interesting experiment on disc last year, how many of us really long to hear it again?

In any case, "Acknowledgement started off the set, and at first, as on record, one was fascinated to hear Coltrane's lines spread out among the sections, harmonized, and passed from instrument to instrument. The rhythm section of Jackson, Nimmer and Henriquez did a sort of approximation of the Elvin Jones/McCoy Tyner/Jimmy Garrison semi-free, polyrhythmic maelstrom heard on the original recording, but here and throughout the long piece, they were too tied to the rest of the group—who were tied to the arrangements—to really achieve more than an often-deflated momentum. Still, there was a thrill hearing the famous "A Love Supreme phrase articulated by each of the musicians in turn (while Goines wailed over them on clarinet) before the band chanted the phrase out loud over the barest bass/cymbal pulse.

"Resolution started strong with its opening Coltrane melody blast articulated by, in turn, the trombones, saxophones, and trumpets—but stumbled into some oddly and inappropriately urbane ensemble parts. Things took off again as Sherman Irby played a bluesy, tart alto solo over the rhythm section alone (the music always improved when the band stripped down to small ensembles, free of the overcooked, weighty arrangements), Jackson driving him forward vigorously. Marsalis brought the house down as he walked slowly around the stage ripping out rapidfire, perfectly-articulated notes (can't deny that Marsalis technique) during his solo on the up-tempo "Pursuance, again alongside a smaller-group formation. Ted Nash's solo on curved soprano was the evening's best moment, however; he alone managed to convey a sense of real desperation and life-and-death drama—and isn't that what Coltrane's music is about? Around these high points, back come the leaden, arch ensembles—entering like humorless disciplinarian headmasters just when things start to get, well, fun.

"Psalm ended the opus with a somber, desolate majesty; this part was gussied with some obvious but lovely Charles Mingus Black Saint and the Sinner Lady-style colors and spiritual yowls (Marsalis emitting cup-mute vocal shrieks throughout) over Jackson's stately mallets. Here, the ensembles seemed to fit the music less suffocatingly, and some of Coltrane's emotion and epic vision came through.

The full house showed none of my reservations, cheering every note in every set with raucous (for Symphony Center, anyway) approval.

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