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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Prime Early Orchestral Duke Ellington From the Jazz at Lincoln Center Ochestra with Wynton Marsalis

What do you do when your big band can’t play any gigs because of the lockdown? You put out an album to keep your fans satisfied until you can get back onstage. More of the large ensembles who play big concert halls around the world should follow the example of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, who’ve just put out a dynamically rich, aptly epic recording of a 2017 live performance of Duke Ellington’s Black Brown and Beige, streaming at youtube.

The big difference between this and the 1943 original is the sonics. Stereo and digital clarity are part of the picture. Interestingly, while JALC’s Rose Auditorium is a pretty dry room – for a jazz venue, especially – you can hear some reverb on the brass. And Marsalis is an Ellingtonian to the core: his passion for this music translates to both the orchestra and the listener.

The dips, swells and conversational contrasts between winds and brass are vividly distinct throughout the suite’s first number, Work Song. As early symphonic Ellington, it’s fascinating to see how the composer takes a folksy 19th century-style melody, makes a plush swing tune and then classical music out of it, seamlessly And the bandleader’s wry phrasing with his mute in response to the daily drudgery is spot-on.

Eli Bishop’s wistfully soaring violin solo in Come Sunday is just as impactful, setting up the long, balmy closing tenor sax break: this is a wind-down day, and it’s sad to see the weekend go. Kicking off with Marsalis’ coy reveille, Light is a good example of how far Ellington would go in pushing a swing theme beyond the confines of a 78 RPM record.

Vaudevillian drums anchor the hazy, complex harmonies of West Indian Dance, until the rhythm section push the beat and it’s choo-choo-ch-boogie, yeah mon! Emancipation Celebration serves as a jubilant coda. Then Brianna Thomas joins the band to deliver a broodingly hushed take of Blues Theme Mauve; a stunningly haggard alto sax solo draws a burst of applause from the crowd.

In the series of themes that follow, jungly drums give way to a funereal interlude that finally engages the piano, then a comfortable walz and a triumphant return to swing. The long tenor sax solo at the center of a warmly nocturnal Sugar Hill Penthouse has nonchalantly impressive range. The orchestra bring the suite full circle, conversationally, trumpeter Chris Crenshaw putting the icing on the cake

May 20, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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