LIVE: Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra @ Proctors, 10/6/15
Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu
It’s a legitimate event when the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra plays your city. In many ways, it recalls Duke Ellington or Cab Calloway coming into town on a train pulling personal Pullman cars for the musicians, their instruments and (in Calloway’s case) their modes of transportation. Thanks to the publicity machine that is trumpeter/bandleader Wynton Marsalis, JALCO is the best-known big band in the world today – and their two-set performance at Proctors proved what gets proven in popular music every single day: Just because you’re the best-known band doesn’t mean you’re the best.
Mind you, this 15-piece unit certainly looks the part, thanks to the impeccably tailored suits provided by Brooks Brothers (the official clothier of Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra – and no, that’s not a joke). And it’s not like Marsalis has surrounded himself with wannabes and posers; any big band that can boast trumpeters like Ryan Kisor and Marcus Printup, multi-instrumentalists like Ted Nash, Victor Goines and Walter Blanding, and a rhythm section as potentially badass as Ali Jackson and Carlos Henriquez packs some serious heat coming into any situation. That said, it is both deliciously ironic and sadly indicative that all the suit jackets worn by the Orchestra were beige, because almost every number played was entirely colorless and incessantly bland.
Take the opening number, Dizzy Gillespie’s “Fiesta Mojo.” Dizzy’s Afro-Cuban period introduced this genre to some of the liveliest, joy-filled sounds it had ever known up to that point. But rather than serving us a spicy, savory dish exploding with flavor, any spice involved was straight out of the Upper Midwest – where ground pepper is considered exotic, and paprika & cumin are “fancy schmansy.” A follow-up Gillespie composition (1946’s “Things to Come,” which appears on the Orchestra’s latest two-disc release Live in Cuba) only had one thing going for it – blinding speed. “They used to play this at 9:30 in the morning,” Marsalis told us during his intro, “after a night of… activity.” The quarter notes flew so fast that even Wynton stumbled over some of them on his solo before breaking out into one clear, sweet, long high note. Duke Ellington’s catalog is supposed to be right in JALCO’s wheelhouse, but apart from a methodically built solo by Kisor, their take on Ellington’s “Limbo Jazz” – another track from Live in Cuba – could charitably be called “Latin Jazz Light.”
The pattern of banality continued through both sets, even when Marsalis attempted to show off the talents of his big unit. Two Dave Brubeck tunes that straddled intermission – “Lost Waltz” and “Fast Life” – were billed as examples of Brubeck’s penchant for unconventional time signatures. And while the Orchestra handled the myriad changes with the same seamlessness they handled every other twist and turn on the evening, all these tunes accomplished was to show young pianist Dan Nimmer was completely out of his depth with this particular material. The one “modern jazz” piece of the evening, Chick Corea’s “Crystal Silence,” was shamelessly strained through Marsalis’ well-worn WWDD (“What Would Duke Do?”) filter, and the two JALCO originals that closed the second set simply stood out like sore thumbs: The dizzying changes and unending rubato in trombonist Victor Gardner’s “Blue Twirl” jarred rather than amazed, and Henriquez’ “Guarajazz” was an intimate tune suffocated by a big-band arrangement that resembled a poorly-designed fat suit.
Any beauty or artistry in this show came down to individual performances. Wynton’s plunger-muted solo on “Fast Life” showed the sublime sound he can create when left to himself. Altoist Sherman Irby owned every inch of Proctors as he slipped, slid and slurred through Ellington’s “Big Fat Alice’s Blues.” No matter what he played, Nash’s expert touch and tone was sufficient to make you consider crying; my favorite Nash moment was his opening clarinet solo on “Silence.” Printup’s solo moments offered faint reminders of when he was considered The Next Big Thing on trumpet, and baritone saxman Paul Nedzela’s work on “Lost Waltz” showed the spirit of Gerry Mulligan, if not the substance.
So how does this happen? How does an orchestra of award-winning cooks turn Eggs Benedict into an Egg McMuffin? You can’t blame it on the big-band matrix: Outfits like Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and Michele Rosewoman’s New Yor-Uba stretch the boundaries of jazz, not create whole new ones. You can’t blame it on the material, either. Listen to the salvaged-and-remixed Ellington at Newport, the best example of Marsalis’ muse in action. The Ellington Orchestra went pedal to the metal, right for the jugular on each and every tune, with Duke yelling enthusiastically from his piano bench; JALCO approaches every piece they play like a science teacher approaches a frog, prepared to dissect it without passion or feeling. You may see the guts of the subject, but you don’t see the soul.
Like a talented football club playing uninteresting, passion-free ball, it all comes back to the coach. In order to make his outfit the best-known ambassador of this genre, Marsalis has sacrificed authenticity in the name of recognition. In order for popular music to attain popularity, it can’t scare you, it can’t challenge you, it can’t ask you questions you don’t want to answer, and if it tastes kinda-sorta like the last hamburger that came down the chute, so much the better. Good jazz – real jazz – wants nothing to do with any of that, but by all indications, these points on the compass are what Wynton Marsalis sails Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra by. And if well-played, inoffensive music is all an audience can hope for from an artist or group, then the time spent watching them is time that audience will never get back.
Kirsten Ferguson’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Prodigious saxman Sherman Irby took the spotlight for a nuanced, emotionally packed solo on Duke Ellington’s soulfully melancholy ‘Big Fat Alice’s Blues,’ while the playful Ellington composition ‘Limbo Jazz’ and Dave Brubeck’s delicate ‘Lost Waltz’ brought multiple opportunities for stunning solos, especially from the fleet-fingered Dan Nimmer. Nearly everyone in the band took a turn in the spotlight at some point during the night, while Marsalis sat in back, acting as emcee to announce each song and call out the efforts of the soloists. He would nod his head along with the music, sometimes chuckling in amazement at the gifts of his well-rounded ensemble — clearly enjoying himself. The audience got a taste of Marsalis’ own instrumental virtuosity at several points in the show, especially during his blazing trumpet solo on Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Things to Come’ and a boozy, woozy muted solo on Brubeck’s ‘Fast Life.'”
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