Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) continues to sound more at home in Verizon Hall, with every concert they play in Philly. Their May 15 tribute to the music legacy of Miles Davis proved to be one of their most musically compelling and swingingest evenings to date. Two generations of JALCO musicians weighing in on how relevant Davis innovations and body of work remains.
Marsalis might be musical director and premier bandleader, but he ambles on with the rest of the 16 piece orchestra and takes his place in the trumpet tier, just one of the stellar musicians in this outfit. Marsalis often talks about the lineage and history of jazz, but for this concert handed off to his colleagues, to talk about Davis’ style of playing and why they wanted to perform specific pieces that showcase Davis’ approach to music.
Trumpeter Marcus Printups and drummer Ali Jackson designed a deep field line-up of numbers that covered every era of Davis career- touching on Miles’ imprimaturs in bop, blue, cool, modals, chamber, electric and fusion. As has been widely discussed because of the new biopic Miles Ahead by actor/director Don Cheadle, Davis also bristled at his music being categorized as jazz, he preferred the phrase ‘social music.’
JLCO smartly avoided Davis’ iconic studio classics, even when audience members started to call out requests from the Kind of Blue sessions. They kept to their playlist going for something more than facsimile renderings or nostalgia. Davis, who hated to return to his so called ‘hits’ unless there was a specific relevant musical reason, would definitely have approved.
Among some of the concert’s many highlights on this night-
The quartet of distant trumpet fields are the intro to Marcus Miller’s composition ‘Tutu’ from Davis’ 1986 hit ‘ pop-jazz’ recording hit, but is given a sharper edge with the funk line by inestimable bassist Carlos Henriquez.
‘Seven Steps to Heaven’ framed the evening’s only solo stretch by drummer Ali Jackson, who all night was the full-piston engine with Henriquez and pianist Dan Nimmer’s masterful piano counterpoints and luminous improvs. Jackson also introduced his own lush arrangement of the Roger/Hart classic My Funny Valentine with its central virtuosic solo, with golden stratospheric trumpet lines delivered by Marcus Printups.
“Miles was a master of space…musically.” Marsalis noted during the introduction of ‘Dear Old Stockholm’, adding “and to re-invent music.” The piece is from Davis’s 1952 Blue Note recording Young Man With a Horn, remade Marsalis noted, from an “iconic arrangement of a Swedish folksong.”
JLCO didn’t skip the small legendary groups Davis led in the 60s that were bringing together a new generation of jazz innovators. Printups introducing the Wayne Shorter composition ‘ESP’ in an expansive orchestral that evoked that near forgotten, defining collaborative era in jazz between cool and fusion.
Marsalis continues to explore and take JLCO in new directions while preserving the legacies of the past. When the band was coaxed back for an encore by the rapturous audience, Marsalis brought on the winner of the JALCO’s young composer’s contest and what a highlight as 17- year- old Joseph Block, a budding Philadelphia composer- musician came on to conduct his own composition “Volcanic Suite” that was original and musically mature, and indeed smoked, smoldered and erupted as performed by Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra.