By Don Heckman
Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra have been making regular appearances in the Southland for the past few years. And it’s always a musical delight to hear this stellar assemblage of jazz artists in action. On Sunday night they took the stage at the acoustically accurate environment of the Valley Performing Arts Center, once again reminding us of the great music that exists in the nearly century-old repertoire of big jazz bands.
Marsalis’ carefully planned programming reached from Duke Ellington to Count Basie, while making additional stops at the efforts of Benny Carter, Henry Mancini, Gerald Wilson and Charles Mingus. The results were extraordinary.
I’m tempted to name (and praise) the impressive soloists who stepped into the spotlight. But the fact is that virtually every member of the JLCO displayed world-class improvisational skills. Suffice to say that the combination of extraordinary ensemble playing, blended with superb individual artistry, led by Marsalis’ deep historical overview (which he offered between numbers) of the creative potential of the big jazz band, resulted in an incomparable evening of music.
And the thought that kept surfacing throughout the memorable two hour program was the JLCO’s far ranging capacity to remind us of the big bands’ historical role as the symphony orchestra of American music. Evolving over the decades from the ’20s to the present, the big bands have provided one composer/arranger after another with the instrumentation to express musical creativity comparable to the work of European symphonic composers.
In the hands of jazz artists such as Marsalis and the gifted members of the JLCO, performing some of the great, jazz-oriented big band works of the 20th century, the music left little to be desired. Add to that the opportunity to compare the big band works of such iconic composers as Ellington, Mingus, Carter and Wilson, among numerous others.
And the result, in this extraordinary performance, was a musical night to remember – a beautifully articulated, inventively played display of big band jazz at its finest.