Just Some People Playing

Just Some People Playing
Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra
by Bob McMurray

Lincoln Center Jazz OrchestraThe Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, based in New York’s fabled Lincoln Center, is jazz’s premier big band ensemble. I’ve seen them swing. I’ve danced (badly) to them with my wife at Chicago Navy Pier’s grand ballroom. I’ve listened to them play the popular strains of the Ellington / Strayhorn songbook. By now I was beginning to wonder, to paraphrase Homer Simpson regarding his beloved doughnuts, “the LCJO…is there anything that they can’t do?” Well I was about to find out, as I nestled into my seat for their latest tour date in Chicago, that we were about to be treated to a new standard in jazz virtuosity.

The versatility of the LCJO team accentuates the impressive dimensions of each member’s musicianship as well as their ability to support the creative direction of their leader Wynton Marsalis.

It has always seemed to me that Wynton Marsalis is a natural teacher. He is fundamentally a mentor and this is clear in every LCJO show whether the topic is Armstrong, Ellington, or Monk. Professor Marsalis effortlessly provides fun and interesting context as a set up to every song for every jazz fan of every level in every audience (in fact this may end up being his enduring legacy). His “history lessons” allow the audience enough of an insight into the music making the musical interpretations executed by the orchestra that much more approachable and enlightening. It is clear that his vision of jazz is rendered from standing on the shoulders of giants who have come before us – in fact the 1st half of the show was dedicated to the early career of Louis Armstrong.

Even though the first half was ostensibly a tribute to Armstrong it was New Orleans in general that was showcased. It was Jelly Roll Morton’s “Wild Man Blues” that featured Marsalis using a plunger mute on his trumpet in the grand tradition of New Orleans playing. Another classic New Orleans culture, the funeral, was reprised in the form of a contrasting coupling of “Flee as a Bird to the Mountain” portraying the funeral march itself and “Didn’t He Ramble” as the funeral celebration. These two pieces vividly illustrate the contrast in styles that the LCJO needed to execute with drummer Herlin Riley controlling the mood through his interpretation of the march of the funeral and then the dance of the parade.

The highlights of the first half of the show were clearly the re-interpretations of the Roaring 20s Armstrong. It was a night for the LCJO trumpet section to shine. Of particular interest was Seneca Black “volunteering” to take on the high C rampages of “Swing That Music”. Introduced through the brief minstrel vocals of trombonist Ron Westray the melody first flirts with the audience. Black’s trumpet then appears and we are assaulted by the intense peals of the horn and the daring of his high wire playing then awes us.

One of my favorite songs of the evening was “Mahogany Hall Stomp” (which Marsalis quipped was what they must have played at Mahogany Hall). Even though we were in the middle of celebrating a New Orleans sound the alto sax solo taken by Ted Nash reveals his ten years in the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis orchestra as his New York bop sensibilities took over and added a dash of modern chemistry to the mix. Just as interesting was the arrangement of the trombone section. The three trombonists, Vincent Gardner, Ron Westray, and Andre Hayward played a continuous “section solo” from one to another and on again over and over in an exciting rolling boil sequence so unlike the unison harmony of the typical trombone section pioneered by Benny Carter and others.

The second half of the show moved on to the modern playing of the LCJO. One of the essential and critically important facets of the LCJO brilliance is their original compositions. The second half started with “Back to Basics” whose rhythms exuded the dark cool of 1960’s detective noir. It also featured another clever sectional arrangement in the saxophone section. A genuine saxophone rainbow of sound mesmerized the audience from the easy self-confidence of Joe Temperly’s baritone sax, to Victor Goines’ classic tenor, and the provocative alto of Ted Nash, to Wess Anderson’s soulful soprano and Walter Blanding Jr.’s ascendant sopranino.

Not to be confined in any way the LCJO then launched into, back to back, the wonderful Latin rhythms and style of “Azulito” and then immediately on to “Almost Pride” an Ellington ballad from his “Anatomy of a Murder” score (score not soundtrack the ever vigilant Marsalis reminds us). As versatile and complete an evening everyone may have had up to that point we were in store for another surprise. The second half closed with the “Caboose” movement from the LCJO’s most recent release, “Big Train”. “Caboose” is a large-scale mood piece illustrating the percussive nature and romance of the steam locomotive. It was an appropriate metaphor for the evening as both the locomotive and the LCJO gracefully blend power, romance, utility, and style as they travel through multiple eras.

A large jazz band is afforded a great deal of versatility due to its multiple instruments and the multiple talent of its players. These opportunities allow it to be a different and creative forum for jazz music. It is neither the crucible that is the small jazz combo nor the coliseum-like jam session. These more familiar jazz environments have their own oeuvre. The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, regardless of their program on any given night, is a celebration of the art and skillful playing of some very special people.