After a five-week tour across the United States, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, (LCJO) conducted by Wynton Marsalis played its last date in Symphony Hall on Sunday evening before its return to New York. The LCJO is the 17-piece touring orchestra of Jazz at Lincoln Center, the jazz program founded four years ago as a department of Lincoln Center. Under the artistic direction of Marsalis and aided by the insights of Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray, Jazz at Lincoln Center has become the most comprehensive jazz program of its kind with a year-round series of lectures, films, concerts and tours. Marsalis's role has expanded recently to include conductor and music director of the LCJO, and his charismatic presence was as much a part of the performance as the music itself.
Marsalis began the evening with a characteristically unequivocal statement of his mission: "We came here to swing." With his irrepressibly jocular style, he described the LCJO's commitment to the music of Duke Ellington while carefully distinguishing the group from a repertory band. Though the evening was devoted to Ellington's music, Marsalis declined to term it a tribute. Rather, he explained, they just believe in playing his music. He ended his preface to the first set with some comments on the past few weeks on the road, offering a somewhat elusive remark about how this had been the "antebellum" tour, at times more similar to 1795 than 1995. What Marsalis may have been alluding to was Jazz at Lincoln Center's unfortunate tendency to attract race-based criticisms. Despite his nearly evangelical commentaries, Marsalis allowed nothing to take precedence over the music.
Although Marsalis's introduction implied an exclusively Ellington set, some of Marsalis's own compositions found their way into the concert as well. The evening started slowly with the medium-tempo Ellington tune "Blues in Blueprint," followed by Marsalis's "Back to Basics," which allowed the band to open up a bit with solos throughout each section. However, it wasn't until after they had played two selections from Ellington's Deep South Suite and "Red Garter" from Ellington's Toot Suite that the band finally began to warm up. The highpoint of the first set came with the second Toot Suite selection, entitled "Red Shoes." Solos by Ryan Kisor and Sherman Irby, and impressive clarinet work by Victor Goines took the energy of the band up to another level. The first half ended with two New Orleans-inspired pieces. First was Marsalis's "Slow Drag," a programmatic piece about the Crescent City after hours. Wycliffe Gordon's trombone growls exemplified the grit of New Orleans bordellos and, despite the dirge tempo, the piece thankfully did not live up to its name. Closing that set was "Second Line" from Ellington's New Orleans Suite.
The concert's second half continued the Ellington/Marsalis theme. Obscure Ellington tunes such as "The Giddybug Gallop" and "Anitra's Dance" from the Peer Gynt Suite preceeded the most impressive moment of the evening, "Jack the Bear." Ellington's double bass feature for Jimmy Blanton was competently played by bassist Ben Wolfe. However, the cameo appearance of pianist Marcus Roberts proved to be the highlight of the tune. Roberts stretched the harmonies of his blues choruses with Monkish lines, piano runs reminiscent of Ellington's "Ko-Ko" and an unparalled rhythmic concept. Following Roberts, Marsalis introduced LCJO's vocalist Milt Grayson. A veteran of the Ellington orchestra, Grayson charmed the audience with his thick bass voice as he worked through renditions of "Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me" and "Love You Madly." Marsalis ended the evening with his own compositon "God Don't Like Ugly" from his oratorio Blood on the Fields.
The band was brought back for an encore of "Wild Man Moore," an obscure Ellington tune from the Paris Blues Suite which featured tenor Andy Farber in a Paul Gonsalves feature. Marsalis ended the tune by leading the trumpet section offstage followed by trombones and saxes in a second-line march. A five-minute standing ovation brought Marsalis back with pianist Eric Reed for a rendition of Marsalis's best composition of the evening, the ballad "Spanish Yaounde." Another five minutes brought the entire band back for "Across the Track Blues" to close the night.
Overall, the band delivered an impressive show. The Ellington charts were flawlessly executed by some of the most competent soloists today, despite the fact that it took nearly an entire set for their talents to emerge. One standout was the trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, who is perhaps one of the most versatile and loudest trombonists today. Though he only rarely picked up his horn, Marsalis also distinguished himself, particularly in his trumpet duel with Marcus Belgrave and his balled performance. Those performance stood out from the concert together with the adventurous selection of seldom-heard Ellingtonia which constituted a fitting tribute to the Duke in itself.