Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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!

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

Concert Review: Jeff “Tain” Watts 4 + 1 at the Jazz Standard, NYC 6/30/09

Longtime Marsalis brothers associate Jeff “Tain” Watts’ stand with his 4+1 group featuring Nicholas Payton on trumpet continues through this coming July 3 at the Jazz Standard. The fabled drummer – some would say the heir to Elvin Jones’ throne – is playing bandleader this time around, which other than the compositions doesn’t make a whole lot of difference. Watts pretty much runs the show whether it’s his group or not, and this was a characteristically intense night: what took it to the next level is that he got to do his own stuff, which is uniformly excellent. As fiery a composer as he is a player, he’s never shied away from controversy or apt social commentary. The high point of this set was The Devil’s Ringtone, Watts’ update on the Mingus classic Fables of Faubus (named after notorious segregationist Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus) transformed into a commentary on the Bush regime’s failure with (or deliberate neglect of) what happened in New Orleans. The band left off the conversation between a certain Mr.  W and “Devlin” that’s on the landmark Watts cd but the sarcastic second line march that ended it was every bit as biting. On the way there, pianist Lawrence Fields and bassist Chris Smith built murky ambience over a crime movie motif for some blazing work from tenor saxist Marcus Strickland and trumpeter Payton, flying over Watts’ booming crescendoing apprehension – cymbals to this guy are more or less the icing on the cake. It’s hard to think of another drummer (Rudy Royston, maybe) who gets the boom going as powerfully and propulsively as Watts.

The requiem theme was recurrent. Katrina James mourned both the loss of James Brown and New Orleans, beginning as eerie chromatic funk, Strickland bringing in the rage with an offhandedly vicious swipe at the end of a Payton solo, Fields’ persistently chordal attack against a Watts solo growing hypnotic against the impatient, anguished flail of the drums. The soulful, bluesy swing of A Wreath for John T. Smith – an especially poignant new number – gave Strickland and Fields the opportunity to contribute vividly bitter remorse in memory of a fellow Berklee student and drummer of Watts’ acquaintance who died young.

Watts is especially adept with latin beats, moving in and out of them, starting the first song of the set, Mr. JJ (a tribute to his dead canine friend) with a salsa feel that Fields eventually came around to. Mr. JJ must have been one crazy dog, considering how much everything had been chewed up by the time the group scampered off on the final chorus, Smith getting quite the workout climbing scales for the better part of ten frenetic minutes. The whole show only reinforced the relevance, fearless intensity and emotional depth of both Watts’ writing and his playing, and the new levels to which a first-class drummer can elevate a talented ensemble. You have several chances to see this crew through Friday, after which Watts is off to Europe again.

July 1, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment