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A Night with Jazz at Lincoln Center

March 13, 2016

A Night with Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis
Michael Fowler Centre
March 12, 2016

It’s hard to imagine that it could be possible for any other big band to beat these guys at what they do. As a showcase of ensemble and solo playing and a demonstration of all the things this combination of instruments can do it was close to perfect.

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I managed to snag one of the extra tickets to the show released after it had originally sold out while I was dithering about whether to go. I was sitting round the side, almost behind the band itself, which meant I could watch them all doing their stuff and see exactly what tricks the drummer was doing and what the brass were doing with their mutes. It was very packed and the audience was super-enthusiastic, which Wynton seemed to at least pretend to be embarrassed about a little.

It was very much not the Wynton Marsalis and his band show though. For most of the concert he sat in the back, introduced the numbers and the musicians, and threw in some trivia about the pieces or the featured soloists. He opened the concert with a Jelly Roll tune played with just the right amount humour and showoff technique with the rhythm section gradually joining his solo. But after that he only played a couple of real solos in each half.

Primarily I got the sense that the programme was built to give a musical tour and a wide range of styles, and let each of the musicians solo and show off their different arrangements. There was everything from a very old arrangement of I Got Rhythm to a more modern version of Rhapsody in Blue to Wayne Shorter (Armageddon) and Thelonious Monk (Ugly Beauty) arrangements, and a Duke Ellington version of Tiger Rag (Braggin’ in Brass) played at very up-up tempo. In addition to these classics there were some originals from the band: a movement from the New Orleans-themed concerto that one of the sax players wrote for Branford Marsalis, a piece by one of the trombonists based on speeches about freedom (they played the Nehru one), a modern take on the old Afro-Cuban jazz arrangements from the bass players, and a pretty wild thing by another trombonist called Blue Twist based on the work of an artist.

Everything was played impeccably and everyone got to show off their skills. They certainly gave the sense that every single one of them was immensely talented and that they weren’t just sharing around the solos for the sake of it, they really wanted to get input from all of these guys to make the show as rich as possible. There were a lot of moments of that beautiful sense of discovery within the solos, where it seemed that they were searching for something new to say about the tune and stretching the music.

It’s not really worth pointing out any individual in the band because literally all of them had moments of genius, and the ensemble playing was also insanely together and tight.

The name ‘Orchestra’ suggests classical music, and if I had any criticism to make it would be that sometimes the band did seem to be playing almost ‘orchestrally’, imparting a little too much significance into arrangements that weren’t always musically rich enough to take interpretations beyond the fun, swinging jazz level. In other words, sometimes big band music is just meant to be dance and happiness rather than subtle ensemble. Sometimes you just want Count Basie to play ten notes in a blues chorus while the rhythm section swings and that’s it, you know?

I also felt like a long sit down concert like this can get a bit monotonous without some really different stuff, and they maybe had a couple of too-similar pieces. But this is all very minor criticism! I don’t always agree with Wynton’s jazz museum/jazz as classical music vibe that can come across as a tribute act, but he kinda converted me with the sheer level of musicianship and style.

Funnily enough probably the highlight of the show was Wynton and the rhythm section again in the encore (after the band came out and did Happy Birthday for the baritone player and lots of hugs and general mateship were shown). A slow ballad which I couldn’t quite place, which was very Miles-ish in building from a whisper to a hall-filling cry and with the rhythm section really following every step. In the full band there just isn’t the space for this kind of nuance and intimate emotional expression I don’t think. But yeah if there was any doubt that he is an absolute master of the instrument then it’s gone now!

A stupendously impressive night!

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