Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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

Delfeayo Marsalis’ Sweet Thunder Matches the Transcendence of the Ellington Original

Funny, true story: trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis asks Gunther Schuller to write the liner notes for his brand-new octet arrangement of Duke Ellington’s Sweet Thunder. Schuller writes back and basically says, “This album is a mistake.” He’s a little more tactful than that, but there’s no mistaking how he feels about it (you can read the whole thing in its entirety in the cd booklet). In case you don’t know who Gunther Schuller is, he’s a composer – an interesting, entertaining one – and has been a pioneer in jazz education for decades (he established the first conservatory degree program in jazz studies, at New England Conservatory in the 1960s). He also sees himself as keeper of the Ellington flame, so in addition to being possessive, he’s on the side of the angels. What also comes out in his response to Marsalis is that he’s a bigger fan of the early Ellington than the post-1950 works including all the suites. No disrespect to Dr. Schuller, but those suites are transcendent, possibly Ellington’s greatest achievements. One critic has already singled out Marsalis’ new arrangements here as being better than the original, which is a matter of taste. Whatever yours might be, it’s inarguable that this new album is just as good as the original. Which makes it pretty amazing: this majestic, Shakespearean-themed tour de force is one of the most exhilarating pieces of music ever written. For anyone who might wonder, why on earth would anyone want (or dare) to remake this, here’s the answer: if you could play this, and you had the chance, wouldn’t you?

Delfeayo Marsalis created his charts using the original Ellington scores in the Library of Congress. As Schuller was very quick to point out, the sound is brighter and the new score noticeable more terse (as you’d expect from an octet doing the work of the whole Ellington Orchestra). And yet, the towering, epic grandeur is still here in full force, whether on the title track that opens the suite, the bustling Sonnet to Hank Cinq or the slyly tiptoeing, bluesy swing of Up & Down, Up & Down. As befits a composition inspired by Othello, there are Moorish interludes and these are the choicest among the literally dozens of potent solo spots here. Bass clarinetist Jason Marshall brings a somber gravitas to Sonnet for Sister Kate; Branford Marsalis swirls with chilly exhilaration on soprano sax on Half the Fun and Sonnet for Caesar; and Victor Goines brings the intensity to uneasy heights on sopranino sax on Madness in Great Ones. Pianist Victor “Red” Atkins’ rippling, slashing depiction of the murder scene in Sonnet for Caesar, as reminiscent of Liszt or Schumann as the blues, might be the single most adrenalizing moment of them all. And Delfeayo Marsalis’ considered, jeweled lines, with or without a mute, are plainly and simply deep: he gets this music. The rest of the band elevates to that same level: there may be more complicated composers than Ellington, but none more emotionally impactful. Mark Gross on alto sax, Tiger Okoshi on trumpet, Mulgrew Miller on piano, Reginald Veal, Charnett Moffett and David Pulphus on bass, Winard Harper and Jason Marsalis on drums join in singlemindedly, alternately triumphant and wisely restrained.

It’s also worth mentioning that this album, stylistically if not thematically, bears some resemblance to the Live at Jazz Standard album issued last year by the Mingus Big Band. In reviewing that one, we hedged that allowing it for consideration as a candidate for best album of the year was absurdly unfair, the equivalent of allowing the ghost of Babe Ruth to compete in a home run hitting contest. The same could be said for this one. In case you haven’ t heard, the Mingus Big Band album ended up winning a Grammy – so here’s predicting that this one will win one too. The night of the awards, don’t forget that we said it first.

February 28, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment