By Don Heckman
There’s never any question that a performance by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is going to be a significant musical event. But their appearance at Royce Hall Friday night in a UCLA Live concert was even more — a program of works that entertained and illuminated, while offering convincing testimony to both the continuing vitality of jazz and the relevant durability of the big jazz band.
With so many creative tools available within the 15 piece instrumentation of the JLCO, Marsalis always has a lot of options in any given program. And on this night, it quickly became clear that the ensemble’s extraordinary collection of soloists would largely dominate an evening rich with Thelonious Monk selections. By the time the program reached its rousing conclusion, every member of the Orchestra — with the sole exception of baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley, who reportedly was not feeling well — had ample opportunity to display his improvisational wares.
Amid the list of showcase solos, the highlights were led by Marsalis himself, whose articulate facility seems to become more impressive with every performance. His always gripping choruses roved from the airy use of a hat on Ted Nash’s quirky arrangement of the children’s classic, “Old MacDonald Had A Farm” to a high speed romp through Kenny Dorham’s “Stage West.” Nash, who also wrote an even quirkier chart for “The Eensie Weensie Spider,” added several out of the box solos as well: a tour through his alto saxophone’s upper harmonics on his arrangement of Lee Morgan’s “Ceora”; an interval-leaping set of variations on Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy” (arranged by trombonist Chris Crenshaw); and a light-hearted romp on flute through “The Eensie Weensie Spider.”
Sherman Irby not only arranged Lou Donaldson’s “Blues Walk,” he also soloed with a stunningly dramatic use of sounds and silences. Crenshaw revealed improvisational chops to match his arranging skills. Trumpeter Ryan Kisor moved effortlessly from high note lead to briskly swinging choruses, while tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding found the heart of the music in every one of his several solo opportunities. And that’s not to mention the multiplicity of sterling work by the other JLCO players.
All of these individual excursions took place in the framework of first class arranging (Marsalis, to his credit, draws from the gifted writing talents within the ensemble) as well as the easygoing spontaneity between players who clearly respect and honor each other’s abilities. Among the other memorable numbers — Marsalis’ gorgeous, Ellington-inspired chart for the saxophone section on Monk’s “Ugly Beauty”; Sherman Irby’s big-band transmutation of the disjunct accents in Monk’s “We See”; and bassist Carlos Henriquez’s rendering of Joe Henderson’s “Shade of Jade.”
The enthusiasm on stage was self-evident throughout, never more so than when there was some good natured jibing at one point to persuade Marsalis to make sure Kisor had a solo. Ending the performance in high spirits, Marsalis spontaneously came back after most of the Orchestra had exited, and played a brief, swinging coda with the rhythm section as the audience began to leave. It was the perfect capper for an evening in which jazz was very much alive, well and flourishing.