Tom Strini
Marsalis and the JLCO

Modern jazz with deep roots

By - Oct 4th, 2011 11:54 pm
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The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Frank Stewart photo courteys of Jazz at Lincoln Center.

The skill of Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra astounds me anew every time I hear them. Their concert Tuesday night, on the Marcus Center Presents series, bowled me over as usual. An assembly of 15 of the best musicians on earth will do that.

That would be enough, but Marsalis and company aim both higher and deeper. Their skill serves both sophisticated musical architecture and taps into traditions, emotions and rhythms that run very deep. Their brand of jazz encourages both rapid synapse firing and movement of the hips.

Marsalis, trumpeter-bandleader-composer, opened with an excerpt from his Congo Square, a celebration of the one place in New Orleans — and in America — where slaves could play their drums. The band didn’t emulate African drumming, but did lay down the collective stomp and clap rhythm of a work gang. Marsalis led a call-and-response litany, in which the band chanted “peace, peace, peace of mind” again and again. At the end of this primal episode, pianist Dan Nimmer spun out an elaborate transition that launched a spectacular, driving, modern-jazz movement of symphonic scope.

The two related pieces laid out Marsalis’ guiding thesis: Everything goes back to New Orleans rhythm, a source so rich and nurturing as to allow infinite growth and variation within a clear tradition. The Congo Square selections and the rest of this concert proved his point.

Not one of the 11 selections followed the beaten path of standard song played straight, many improvised solos, and then back to the song. Marsalis or a composer close to him — including composer-trombonist Chris Crenshaw, the band’s youngest member — develop their music organically. Material doesn’t merely recur, in grows and varies like a vine twining its way to sunlight. Lots of composers make symphonic and chamber music that way within classical tradition. The J in JLCO lies in rhythms rooted in Congo Square and a practice that prizes expert and expressive improvisation above all other forms of virtuosity.

When Marsalis and his bandmates improvise, they do not merely show off their skill and they do not work in isolation. Tuesday night, soloist after soloist showed a keen awareness of what preceded immediately and location within the larger form. These big pieces unfolded not as series of short stories, but as complete and satisfying novels written by smart, collaborative authors.

As smart, complex and modern as those novels might sound, they always contained echoes of folks tales told in New Orleans and rooted in Africa.


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