The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is currently on the last leg of their three-month tour across the US. The 15-piece orchestra led by the inimitable, and otherwise laid-back Wynton Marsalis, was in more than fine form when they swung into Philadelphia’s Academy of Music on a rainy night March 24 playing to an almost full house.
On tour, this band mixes up their broad repertoire, per gig, as Marsalis showcases their mastery of all of the jazz genres and eras spanning the last century in jazz. The virtuosity of every band member is a given, as an ensemble they are in a class by themselves.
Marsalis taking his spot in the back row with the rest of the trumpeters for the entire concert, microphone in hand to welcome the crowd and introduced the set list and talked about the current tour, the pandemic and jazz connections around the world. Their current tour, ironically enough, started with performances in Moscow and Ukraine.
The set opened with a blazing excerpt from a 12-movement jazz symphony by Marsalis. ‘When does the …Swing.’ The blaring opening bars came crashing in with the radiance of the 30s big-band energy, setting-up a journeying template for all of the members of this orchestra. Marsalis, took the first blazing, breathless, golden tone lead solo passage, then saxophonist Nicole Glover took the lead, and later Eric Miller’s trombone passages turned up the heat, as Marsalis ‘ tour around the ‘Swing’ era garden just keeps blooming . Driving the sonic architecture were Marsalis’ outstanding rhythm section with bassist Luques Curtis, Adam Birnbaum piano and Oben Clavaire’s thunderclap drums.
Among the concerts highlights:
‘Dance at the Mardi Gras Ball’ composed by JALCO veteran Victor Goines who soloed on tenor sax. A mid-tempo piece that conjures the smoke-filled after-hours clubs and romance of the 60s cool era. Goines states the lush themes, backed by the gold tone trumpet of Bryan Kisor and then Goines in a duet with Birnbaum’s whispery piano.
Marsalis may be the founding leader of the band, but he speaks from the back trumpet row and proves that he is a workaday artist just like the rest of band. His virtuosity and technical artistry are a given, but his interplay with the band is always in the collective musical moment.
Marsalis obviously delighted in announcing that it was JALCO veteran sax titan Sherman Irvy’s birthday. Irvy is a master arranger of new material, Marsalis noted. So much so that when something was perfected they called it ‘a Sherman..’
Irvy was the soloist on his smoldering arrangement of Duke Ellington’s ‘Big Fat Alison’s Blues’. Irvy’s extended cadenza, his cocky phrasing and wending basso notes drew audible reactions. Irvy’s rhythmic pauses and the sax voicing, less Ellingtonia and pure Irvy delivered the audience to Basin St. Blues heaven.
“Thea,” a raucous Latin big band composition by bassist Carlos Henriquez, featuring sizzling Latin brass samba mixes with sumptuous solos by Alexa Tarantino on alto-sax, Kenny Rampton on trumpet (and growling mute) with Obed, Birnbaum, and Curtis’ rumba infectious counterpointe bassline, which concluded the first half of the concert.
Marsalis chatted between the pieces, and reminiscenced about his relationships with scores of Jazz musician-composers who hailed from Philly going back decades, reeling off the names- the Brecker Brothers, Christian McBride, McCoy Tyner, Shirley Scott, “you know, I could go on and on.” Marsalis recalled Jimmy Heath’s telling Wynton about New York’s 59th st. jazz nexus, “you ain’t never getting out.”
The second set featured Marsalis’ fulsome revival of Sonny Rollins’ 1950s jazz manifesto ‘Freedom Suite,’ a jazz anthem about the quest for liberty and the struggle to attain it. “These pieces were considered to be protest music in the 60s, in fact they affirmed democracy,” Marsalis said.
JALCO’s saxophonist Walter Blanding’s arrangement Rollins’ for big band remains true to the core simplicity that fueled the original trio of Rollins, Max Roach and Oscar Pettiford. Rollins’ powerful musical response and has such resonant power over 60 years later as a needed plea for liberty for all people, couldn’t have been more resonant vis-à-vis events in the world on this night
JALCO tour continues across the US through April 9, 2022