Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis At Massey Hall in Toronto on Thursday
People who worry that jazz is in decline lament that its best-known stars are either aging or gone, with no one in the younger generation carries the cultural clout of a Duke Ellington or a Miles Davis.
In some ways, the best counterargument would be Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Easily the best-known jazzman of his generation, Marsalis has a profile – a Pulitzer Prize, a UN appointment, albums with the likes of Eric Clapton and Willie Nelson – his predecessors would’ve envied. But are his accomplishments on par with theirs?
Jazz at Lincoln Center, which Marsalis directs, is the music’s most recognizable brand for a reason. Not only does it sponsor a steady stream of events in New York, the jazz capital of the world, but it sends the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra across the globe to concertize, proselytize and galvanize.
As their Toronto stop made plain, the band looks great – how many other jazz ensembles can claim Brooks Brothers as their “official clothier”? – and sounds even better. There are virtuosos in every chair, and Wednesday’s show was chockablock with screaming trumpets, opulent sax harmonies and brash, churchy trombones. And though the original concept was to pay tribute to jazz’s greatest composers, these days the JLCO mainly plays the music of Wynton Marsalis.
He loved him madly
Marsalis is an Ellingtonian, although not in the popular sense. He doesn’t write hits like Satin Doll or Sophisticated Lady, but composes ambitious suites – Congo Square, Big Train, Blood on the Fields – as Ellington did in the sixties and seventies.
Yet as vividly as he evokes the Ellington palette (and having Ellington alum Joe Temperley aboard to anchor the sax section is a plus), the pieces played seemed to emphasize the gimmicky end of that style. The Caboose, from Big Train, was mainly about making the brass sound like train whistles, and once you got past the novelty of a jazz treatment of The Itsy Bitsy Spider, his arrangement did little more than echo Toot Toot Tootie Toot from Ellington’s version of The Nutcracker Suite.
Blues and the mundane truth
There’s plenty of dazzle in the JLCO book, but apart from outside tunes such as bassist Carlos Henriquez’s arrangement of Horace Silver’s Señor Blues, there isn’t much you’d walk away humming. Wisely, the compositions compensate for that by building much of the solo space around the blues, a strategy that makes the improvisation as crowd-pleasing as it is conservative.
Alto saxophonist Sherman Irby was particularly persuasive as he parsed the boogaloo beat beneath Y ou’ve Got to Watch the Holy Spirit (from Marsalis’s Mass); Victor Goines’s clarinet and Marcus Printup’s trumpet on Bamboula (from Congo Square) evoked the best qualities of New Orleans jazz; and trumpeter Kenny Rampton was stunning as he went from a half-valved whisper to a full bore scream in Señor Blues.
The man with the golden horn
There were also plenty of solos by Marsalis, from a lengthy, plunger-assisted bit on the show-opening Back to Basics (from Blood on the Fields) to the rapid-fire runs of the encore he played with the JLCO rhythm section. It was hard not to be impressed by his impeccable technique, his big, warm tone and his unerring sense of swing.
So why was I unmoved? Marsalis stands up for jazz classicism because many of the great recordings of the past still sound fresh today, but his solos sounded old even as the notes were leaving his horn, and his arrangements seemed musty compared to what Maria Schneider or D’Arcy James Argue do. If this is the best-known brand in jazz, maybe the worriers are right to be concerned.