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Wynton Marsalis Quintet at The Palace Theater

Karl Ackermann By

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Wynton Marsalis Quintet
The Palace Theater
Stamford, CT
April 30, 2016

There are expectations baked into a live performance from the caliber of a Wynton Marsalis. An artist who has won a Pulitzer Prize for Music, nine GRAMMY awards, serves as the Director of Jazz studies at Juilliard and is actively involved in a number of humanitarian activities, Marsalis is as much a brand name as any musician in modern history. And so, maintaining spontaneity in the face of broad public anticipation, becomes all the more challenging. Suggested as having a somewhat predisposed criteria for defining jazz, the body of Marsalis' work would effectively argue in the other direction. Traditional New Orleans style, swing, blues, gospel, post-bop and jazz oratorio all have a place in the Marsalis canon along with baroque and other classical recordings. While not all-inclusive of a more broadly defined scope of jazz (i.e., avant-garde, free jazz, fusion), it is nevertheless, a fairly open and extensive resume and much of it on display at Stamford's Palace Theater.

The quintet performance was sponsored by the Stamford Symphony though the resident orchestra did not participate in this show. Marsalis, who had lost his voice prior to the show, turned over the calling of the set list to his band mates. This gave them the opportunity to inject a bit of good natured ribbing of their leader during the course of the seventy-five minute concert. The Stamford Palace Theater—home base for the city's symphony—is one of the more stately settings in which to see a jazz concert. The sixteen-hundred seat theater was originally designed as a vaudeville house, which opened in 1927. Designed by the Scotsman, Thomas W. Lamb, a preeminent theater architect, it had been restored and re-opened in 1983 with improvements ongoing over the past years.

The Marsalis Quintet, as one would expect, consists of the some of the finest musicians and composers, in modern jazz. Saxophonist Walter Blanding has been a member of the Marsalis-directed Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra for more than fifteen years and has worked with Roy Hargrove, Hilton Ruiz, Wycliffe Gordon and Marcus Roberts among many others. Bassist, Carlos Henriquez has performed with a diverse cross-genre group including Chucho Valdes, Tito Puente, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, and Lenny Kravitz. Pianist Dan Nimmer—also a long-time member of JALC—has worked with Norah Jones, Dianne Reeves, George Benson, Clark Terry, and Benny Golson. Drummer Ali Jackson studied under Elvin Jones and Max Roach and has performed or recorded with many diverse artists including Aretha Franklin, Joshua Redman, Diana Krall, and the New York City Ballet, as well as serving producer on a number of recordings. In the chronology of Marsalis' various quintets, this collective first recorded together on From the Plantation to the Penitentiary (Blue Note Records/EMI, 2007).

The quintet opened with "Free to Be," originally recorded with the Wynton Marsalis Quartet on The Magic Hour (Blue Note, 2004). The swinging, bluesy piece featured terrific solos from Marsalis, Blanding and Nimmer and made for an energized start to the evening. Followed by the standard, "Comes Love," Henriquez excelled on his intricate, yet brooding, opening solo and had a second opportunity later in the piece. On this composition, as with much of the night's program, each member of the group gets plenty of time in the spotlight. The quintet's interpretation of this piece, made popular by Billie Holiday, is modern, genuine and with just the right amount of easy-going improvisation. Henriquez' own "Cuchifrito" is next up and take on a propulsive Latin flavor driven by Jackson's percussive imagination and blistering solos all around.

Much of Jelly Roll Morton's "Tom Cat Blues" was a duet between Marsalis (with a muted trumpet) and Nimmer. Later, Jackson picked up a washboard before launching into a solo that seemingly utilized every object in his reach. Marsalis' own composition, "Doin' Our Thing," is from his socially-conscious From the Plantation to the Penitentiary. Blanding switched from the tenor to sopranino saxophone adding an exotic quality to the piece. "The Midnight Blues"—another Marsalis composition—this one dating back to Standard Time, Vol. 5: The Midnight Blues (Sony, 1997), opened with Nimmer's extraordinary piano work and muted trumpet, it patiently built up to the full group and closed with Henriquez and Marsalis interacting. The program wraped up with a burning version of the 1930s standard "Cherokee."

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