Live Jazz: Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at Disney Hall

By Michael Katz

When Wynton Marsalis led his star-studded Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra onto the stage at a sold-out Disney Hall last night, he was greeted so warmly that you could sense the mutual appreciation before the first note was played. That feeling lasted throughout a memorable evening, underpinned by the band’s roots in Ellingtonia and bolstered by a combination of new compositions and fresh arrangements of material by Gerry Mulligan, Chick Corea and more.

The talent in this orchestra is staggering. Consider the trumpet section, led by Ryan Kisor  and featuring the terrific Marcus Printup and Mingus Big Band alum Kenny Rampton.   Not to mention Marsalis, himself, who picked his spots in several riveting choruses. Then there’s the front line of saxophones, with tenors Walter Blanding and Victor Goines anchoring the flanks, Ted Nash and Sherman Irby in the middle, playing alto and flutes, and a rising star, Paul Nedzela on baritone.

Wynton Marsalis and the brass of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra

I was less familiar with the trombone section, but they staked out their territory early, with section leader Chris Crenshaw’s composition “Creation.” After an opening fanfare from Printup and some gently swinging tenor work from Victor Goines,  Crenshaw and his cohorts, Vincent Gardner and Elliot Mason, took over. The Ellington influence was clear in Crenshaw’s composition – not just in the harmonics, but in the idea of the jazz orchestra as an organic conduit for the range of human emotions. If that seems to oversell the idea a little, it does provide a heartbeat for the diverse menu that followed.

Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis

Marsalis led JLCO to the Count Basie book for Frank Foster’s “Blues in Hoss Flat,” which featured Wynton’s first turn with a muted horn, and another spirited run by Goines on tenor. But it was pianist Dan Nimmer who stole the number. With all the fine section playing in this band, Nimmer often gets the best opportunities for expansive solos (there is, after all, no piano section). He has a deft touch, subtly shifting moods and tempos. Marsalis wisely gives him room in this powerful ensemble to establish himself.

If their overall oeuvre seemed a little retro at that point, the next segment, a nod to the late Gerry Mulligan, brought the band squarely into the hearts of this LA crowd. The first Mulligan tune, “Over The Hill And Out Of The Woods,” epitomized Mulligan’s swing and grace. Nimmer carried the melody along, joined by  Nash and Irby on flutes and a muted trumpet section behind them. There was lovely solo work by Kisor and Crenshaw. Oddly enough, the tune featured everything except the baritone sax. That was remedied quickly as Paul Nedzela and Dan Zimmer teamed up for a gorgeous version of “Lonesome Boulevard.” It is impossible to duplicate Mulligan’s lithe, almost effortless handling of the bari sax, but Nedzela did a splendid job of being reminiscent of the style without resorting to mimickry. The crowd was captivated by this extended performance, and rewarded him with a sustained ovation.

Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra
Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra

Wynton, in the meantime, was comfortably ensconced with the trumpet line in the back row. In this age of megalomania, it is a revelation to see this band work without anyone standing out front. The pace is set subtly, with Sherman Irby sometimes counting things out from his front row center perch. But Marsalis is in charge, and last night he seemed particularly at home in the den-like atmosphere of Disney Hall. His reflections were witty and heartfelt, with the occasional spontaneous quips from the band. Following the Mulligan tribute, he introduced an Ellington line called “Braggin’ In Brass,” which he described as so difficult for the featured trombone section that Ellington only performed it once. The chorus indeed was a challenge, a burst of staccato playing by Crenshaw, Gardner and Mason, thankfully (for them) brief, abetted by some great brushwork by Ali Jackson on drums. As if to apologize for putting his ‘Bones through the wringer, Marsalis responded with an extended riff, rolling off brilliant cadenzas while the trombones caught their breadth.

The next two numbers featured the woodwinds of Ted Nash. First was a new arrangement of Chick Corea’s “Windows.” The song, which became a signature tune for flutist Hubert Laws, provided ample opportunities for Nash. He designated the theme to the trombone section, led  by Vincent . They provided a lush backdrop,  leaving Nash to explore the nuances with some lilting flute work before handing the melody back to Dan Nimmer for a gentle coda.  After a brief anecdotal interlude by Wynton, there was a special treat. Dick Nash, the 85 year-old father of Ted, came on stage. With a tambourine intro by Ali Jackson and another piano flourish by Nimmer, Nashes pere et fil performed “All The Things You Are.” Dick Nash’s tones were as full and sweet as ever, his lanky frame a visual delight as well, maneuvering the slide trombone.

Sherman Irby took the spotlight for the next two numbers. His elegiac composition “Insatiable Hunger,” featured a Walter Blanding solo on his curved soprano sax and some nice muted trombone work by Crenshaw, as well as Irby’s dramatic alto. Then there was his muted brass arrangement of “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby,”  which featured Vincent Gardner on the vocals. It also featured a joyful bass solo by Carlos Henriquez, who had been steady throughout the evening, but began to find some solo room as the concert reached its conclusion.

The nominal end to the evening was Kenny Dorham’s “Stage West,” which gave some solo work to a few of the players from whom we hadn’t heard enough: Ryan Kisor, Eliot Mason, more great stick work from Ali Jackson and a terrific turn from Walter Blanding. Of course, the audience wouldn’t let the band leave, and they returned with a spirited Ellington extravaganza.

***** ***** *****

At this point, your critic puts his pen down and simply stands with the crowd, enjoying the romp. When it is over, the band leaves but Wynton stays, along with the rhythm section. He rewards the crowd with a brief quartet turn, a Satchmo-drenched blues, before trailing off into the night.

To read more iRoM reviews and posts by Michael Katz, click HERE.

To visit Michael Katz’s personal blog, “Katz of the Day,” click HERE.

Photos by Tony Gieske.

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