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Was I in the wrong place at the wrong time on September 23? There were several people standing around with signs reading "Need 1 ticket," "Please, sell me your tix," and other pleadings to find a way to gain entrance. This was more like the kind of scene at a Duke basketball game just down the road at Cameron, rather than a jazz concert at Duke's Page Auditorium. This, however, was no ordinary jazz concert. It was the first appearance in this area of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, featuring Wynton Marsalis as Music Director and first trumpet. Marsalis is a unique musician in many respects, including the remarkable feat of winning both jazz and classical Grammy awards in both 1983 and 1984. Winning a Pulitzer Prize in music for his oratorio Blood on the Fields, his feature role as commentator in Ken Burns' epic PBS documentary Jazz, plus other honors and recordings too numerous to mention, make him a first-rank celebrity who will always draw a huge crowd.
Jazz has had an uphill struggle to be accepted into the great music institutions and conservatories, from the first jazz concert at Carnegie Hall with the Benny Goodman Orchestra to the still evolving acceptance of jazz studies programs at music schools throughout the country. It is perhaps Marsalis's greatest triumph that a jazz ensemble has become an official representative of Lincoln Center in New York City, thus being put on the same plane as opera, dance, and symphonic music (although the New York Philharmonic is considering relocating a few block south, to Carnegie Hall).
It has been a while since I have sat upstairs at Page Auditorium and I forgot the almost inhumane seating conditions of this building - and not just for people on the large side of "normal." Legs have nowhere to go but in the back of the head of the person in front of you, and you become involuntarily intimate with the persons on either side. This was the way it used to be on the main floor, until about 15 years ago - it's time to fix the "cheaper" seats. (That said, the sound is generally better in the balcony than downstairs....) Most everyone seemed to weather the discomfort for the opportunity to see and hear this group, and we all squeezed in and waited the show to start.
The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, in instrumentation, is your standard big band: five saxophones of varying sizes with many players doubling on various clarinets, three trombones, four trumpets, and a rhythm section consisting of piano, bass and drums.
The program, subtitled "Out Here to Swing," began with a selection by North Carolina-born Thelonious Monk. Marsalis displayed his great skill of making the trumpet "talk," using various mutes and "growling" effects that were a staple of some of the early trumpet greats. The band is a highly skilled and disciplined ensemble which is able to work together as a tight-knit machine as well as break loose and blow with abandon. One of the great delights of the evening, in addition to the playing itself, was the outstanding sound mix, especially the rhythm section. It is quite difficult to get an acoustic bass in such a large hall to retain its quality and be heard by everyone without a harsh electronic tinge. The tone was pure, felt and driving and the piano and drums were equally well regulated.
With a tribute to John Coltrane, the first half contained some more acknowledgement of the wealth of jazz greats that our state has spawned. This selection contained some exquisite playing by pianist Eric Lewis whose solo was the epitome of thoughtful, creative and ever-building improvisation. The highlight of the first set was the Billy Strayhorn arrangement of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." While perhaps not as well known as the same arranger's rendition of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite," it was a wonderful take on the well-known work, played with great skill and spirit.
Marsalis announced each piece and presented the soloists afterward, but other than that he was just another band member and did not present himself as above anyone else in the group. During intermission it was interesting to eavesdrop on some comments, and two of them probably summed up best how many people felt. Obviously they were not reflections of shortcomings of this superb group but merely commentary on people's expectations. Several Duke students were talking and said something like, "Could you, like, believe, that's, like, Wynton freakin' Marsalis. It's, like, totally awesome, but why, like, doesn't he, like, do something?" Older couples were bemoaning the fact that they weren't playing big band music like they remembered from their youth. I could sympathize with the latter, since I felt that the second half in particular, despite brilliantly conceived solos by the likes of Marcus Printup, trumpet, Victor Goines, saxophone, and Carlos Henriquez, bass, was unsatisfying. Marsalis' "Evolution of the Groove" was an overlong suite that felt forced and slapped together. It is ironic that Marsalis, who for so long was criticized as a jazz dinosaur - living in the past and only rehashing what was already done - seems now to be eschewing much of that tradition in his jazz orchestra, opting instead for many less-than stellar new works.
Still, it was a thrilling evening with an almost Hollywood feel to it. We got to hear some of the greatest jazz musicians of our era, supported by great sound engineering, and we got a glimpse of a true star. A more balanced program would have gone a long way toward making it a perfect evening.