Lucid Culture


World-Famous Big Band Celebrates Pantheonic Painters

Since prehistory, musicians have been inspired by visual art. But there’s never been a big band jazz album featuring works by multiple composers referencing paintings from across the decades. The new Jazz and Art record by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis – streaming at youtube – took almost a decade to create. New York’s most renowned big band premiered it live in 2010, playing to projections overhead. The vast stylistic range of the music mirrors the art that springboarded it, including works by Romare Bearden, Winslow Homer and Piet Mondrian.

The sheer fun that the composers here had writing for this mighty beast of an ensemble is visceral, and the orchestra reward those efforts lavishly. The album opens with a Stuart Davis-inspired triptych by Doug Wamble. The first segment, The Mellow Pad, is a moody, New Orleans-tinged cha-cha in the same vein as Tom Waits’ Down in the Hole, with spare, bluesy Vincent Gardner trombone at the center. Likewise, the second part is a paraphrase of When the Saints Come Marching In, with bright spotlights on Marcus Printup’s trumpet and Sherman Irby’s alto sax. The group take a pointed, almost tiptoeing swing through the ragtime-tinged conclusion, Dan Nimmer’s piano pushing it further into postbop.

Gardner contributes the epic Sam Gilliam shout-out Blue Twirl, developing slowly from Messiaenic birdsong-like chatter, to wry jesting, a silky clave and a brisk swing, bassist Carlos Henriquez signaling the changes. Marsalis, altoist Ted Nash and trombonist Elliot Mason punch in hard with solos.

Trombonist Chris Crenshaw gets the plum assignment of tackling Bearden’s iconic collage The Block with sweeping, jump blues-inspired swing, Nimmer pouncing, tenor saxophonist Victor Goines leading the group into a balmy Harlem evening. Coming full circle with a triumph at the end, it’s the album’s most vivid, memorable number.

Low brass and percussion build ominously looming ambience as trombonist Papo Vasquez’s salute to Wilfredo Lam, the Orisha Medley: Air, Earth, Fire, Water gets underway. Anchored by a steady Afro-Cuban groove, the composer hands his imposing solo off to Marsalis, who raises the roof, the whole crew joining the blaze.

Bill Frisell was an apt choice to pitch in a Winslow Homer-inspired diptych, an allusively folksy, bittersweet waltz and a boisterous jump blues, the latter of which is the most modernist number here. Nimmer’s elegant cascades and tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding’s enigmatic, airy work liven Andy Farber’s colorful, cinematic arrangements.

The lustrous introduction to trumpter Tim Armacost’s Mondrian tribute The Repose in All Things is a false alarm. It turns out to be a bright, bustling excursion, Irby buoyantly setting up trumpeter Ryan Kisor’s crescendo. The album winds up with Irby’s Twilight Sounds, for Norman Lewis, expanding joyously on a vaudevillian theme. If you like your jazz blazing, brassy and evoking decades of history, crank this record.

January 11, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Enlightening Ellington Afternoon with Wynton Marsalis and the JALCO

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s performance of Duke Ellington classics from 1930 through 1971 yesterday at JALC’s Rose Theatre was like being invited to the meeting of a secret society all too eager to let you in on the biggest secret of all. Anybody who dismisses the later Ellington needs to see this band play it. Although this was a rare early-afternoon show, as Wynton Marsalis went out of his way to mention, he was in top form both on the horn, and as raconteur and Ellington advocate.

Marsalis underscored what was  on the bill by reminding how Ellington took the blues further than anybody else – and that the composer remained such a fan of the blues that when Count Basie saw Ellington in the audience, he’d keep an eye on him; when Duke would get up to leave, Basie would lead the band into a blues to keep Ellington in the house, which apparently worked every time. Marsalis reminded that Paul Gonsalves’ famous long solo on Dimuendo and Crescendo in Blue (a piece not on the bill, actually) wasn’t a concession to hard-bop convention: it was an attempt to make Gonsalves break a sweat and sober up a little. Introducing a particularly harmonically challenging  arrangement for the saxophone section, Marsalis quipped that “Tf there’s an entrance exam for Hell, this is it,” And in going back and reading the corrosively critical jazz press that followed the Carnegie Hall debut of Black, Brown and Beige, Marsalis acknowledged that “There’s such a pervasive and deeply held ignorance about Duke Ellington that I found myself getting upset.” And he’s right: how anyone could mistake that masterpiece for anything other than what it is makes no sense.

It’s amazing how fresh and new this ensemble makes the music sound. They played two numbers from that iconic suite, a boisterously joyful take of Emancipation, trumpeter Kenny Rampton using a floppy hat for a mute at one point, and closed the show with a version of Symphonette and its serpentine exchanges of voices over ultraviolet lustre. The biggest “oooh” moment of the set was a rapt, simmering, low-key purist septet take of Mood Indigo; then again, Marsalis’ own rapidfire, register-expanding, subtly polyrhythmic solo on Braggin’ in Brass right before that was pretty sensational. The lushly sophisticated Lady of the Lavender Mist, as Marsalis noted, wasn’t written as a baritone feature, but this version put bari saxophonist Joe Temperley front and center with his nuanced tremolo buildling to a tenderly lyrical crescendo. The orchestra sank a collective set of fangs into the gritty minor-key triplet riff of Portrait of Wellman Braud – an early Ellington bassist and distant Marsalis relative – as it percolated through the arrangement. They picked up Island Virgin and quickly moved it from lighthearted calypso jazz to baroque swing, pulsing with misty colors and a lively Ted Nash clarinet solo.

The waltzing Paris Steps reveled quietly in this same kind of luminosity, with an optimistic Sherman Irby alto sax solo. Two Trains that Pass in the Night, a droll exercise in stereo effects, was Ellington at his most wryly vaudevillian. And a vigorous romp through Harlem Airshaft – a sardonic depiction of neighborhood chatter – gave voice to the Facebook of the 1930s, i.e. real life. There’s nothing better than some Ellington in the afternoon to send you flying, completely blissed out into the street afterward (OK, maybe some Ellington at night). A shout out to the rest of the cast, whose intricate and inspired contributions were too numerous to count: Ryan Kisor and Marcus Printup on trumpets; Vincent Gardner, Elliott Mason and Chris Crenshaw on trombones; Victor Goines and Walter Blanding on tenor saxes; James Chirillo on banjo and guitar; Dan Nimmer on piano; Ali Jackson on drums; and bassist Carlos Henriquez, who on the spur of the moment led the remaining crew onstage through a few triumphant walk-off bars of Take the A Train.

A special shout out was also earned by the crew at the box office and the unexpectedly affable house manager, who graciously fixed a ticket snafu which for a second threatened to derail this review. Thanks guys!

April 28, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Yes! Trio Reaffirm Themselves at the Jazz Standard

The Yes! Trio with Aaron Goldberg on piano, Omer Avital on bass and Ali Jackson on drums have a new album just out on Sunnyside. Last night they played the first of their two record release shows for it at the Jazz Standard – if melodic jazz that’s equal parts wit and chops is your thing, you should see their show tonight (sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 PM). Avital and Jackson have a long history together since their days as young lions of the scene that coalesced around Smalls in the early 90s and re-energized jazz in this city, so they have a good idea of when the other’s punchlines might be coming – Avital tends to be the scene-stealer here but not always. Goldberg’s role in this tends to be a raised eyebrow, “I know what you’re up to back there,” although he’s not above leaving the gravitas behind and flying off with the rest of the crew, typically when least expected. Their camaraderie can be friendly, or droll, and it’s steeped in years of experience in a vast range of styles (the last time we caught Avital, he was playing a Paul McCartney model bass guitar, and then oud, in an Israeli rock band).

Their show last night was bright, bristling with energy and electric with anticipation. They opened with an expansive modal blues titled Mohammed’s Market, Goldberg holding it together with clenched-teeth composure, Avital taking the first of several tongue-in-cheek solos spiced with brief flashes of standards, cheesy pop songs, “charge” motifs and pretty much anything else he could scrape up in a flash, bending his high strings with a bluesy, guitarish grin. Goldberg related how they’d just written the song hours before, Avital singing the melody to the band rather than handing out charts: “As you can see, we don’t usually have music to go from,” Goldberg deadpaned. Jackson explained later in the set how he’d inspired Avital to write it: years ago, the two were touring the former East Germany a couple of years after the Berlin Wall came down. Fast food and vending machines had yet to make it into the train stations there, so “If you didn’t have breakfast, good luck!” he explained. Fortunately, he had a local to visit – an aunt – who took him out to stock up on snacks. On the train the next day, Jackson opened his suitcase for some munchies, causing one of his jealous bandmates to ask, “What’s that, Mohammed’s Market?”

They swung the next tune with a similarly bluesy edge, Avital taking another lengthy digression. The jazz waltz El Sol maintained a suspenseful vibe, straight through a whispery, conspiratorial outro. They hit their lone cover of the evening, Epistrophy, hard, matter-of-factly Monk-like, not wasting any time. Goldberg drew them out of yet another heavy-lidded, gleeful Avital solo with a build to a breathtaking, cascading, ringingly chromatic run up and then down again, which drew the loudest applause of the night. Their final number, Flow, was based on changes to Giant Steps. Finally, after an entire set of urbane elegance, Jackson put that approach down for good and rode the rims til the second verse, galloping and carnivalesque, with an interlude where he hit on the “one” in an attempt to out do Avital at the vaudevillian game. When he straightened out, he was still spotting random Kenny Washington-style off-beat accents to keep everybody on their toes – including the audience. A little later on, Goldberg let out a yell as the band went doublespeed, punching out the seemingly endless series of expanding intervals with triumphant precision. What these guys really ought to do is one of those “live at the Jazz Standard” albums like the Mingus Orchestra did a couple of years ago: the pristine sound and the band’s lively fan base would only enhance it.

February 8, 2012 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment