If any in attendance at UNC for the sold-out program on Wednesday were expecting a concert of uncharted explorations in contemporary jazz, they would have been sorely disappointed. Instead they were treated to the combined work of fifteen extraordinarily talented musicians who severally and individually constitute the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO). The 90 minute uninterrupted program consisted of nine pieces, mainly from composers Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Chick Corea, and Dave Brubeck, dating to the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s. Each work was introduced by Marsalis from his place in the trumpet section with grace and humor together with the historical context of the music at hand. The concert was presented by Carolina Performing Arts.
At the outset it is a pleasure to say that for once a jazz concert at Memorial Hall took place with the minimum of audio amplification. "Sound reinforcement" was the order of the evening so that by and large the proper acoustic sounds of the instruments could be heard clearly and without the use of earplugs. What a treat!
The opening piece was a composition by Wayne Shorter titled "Free for All." It actually wasn't what the title implied; rather, it was a delightful medium-tempo swing piece that allowed room for exquisite solos from saxophonist Walter Blanding and trumpeter/leader Wynton Marsalis, who exhibited his knack for combining melodic and rhythmic phrases with superb dynamics. It also allowed the band (orchestra!) to settle in to a perfectly balanced sound for the entire evening. Marsalis extolled his admiration for Duke Ellington several times during the concert; one piece titled "The Peacocks" (from the Queen's Suite) initially only had one pressing and was sent directly to Buckingham Palace in London. (It is not clear whether this is apocryphal, but it was certainly released as an album in 2006 called The Ellington Suites.) In any event it was interesting in that it incorporated some of the subtle rhythmic patterns of which Ellington was fond and that he had heard on his world travels.
Similarly Marsalis paid tribute to Dave Brubeck in the same context with a piece creatively arranged by bassist Carlos Henriquez that not surprisingly contained rhythmic changes, for example sections alternating between 4/4 and 3/4 time signatures.
One of the most entrancing solos of the evening was on another Ellington piece – "Music for 'Bean'" – that he wrote for Coleman Hawkins (his nickname was Bean) by tenor saxophonist Victor Goines. There were two works credited to pianist Chick Corea – "Wigwam," a multi-rhythmic piece basically in 6/8 time which contained the only "free jazz" expression of the evening and nicely demonstrated that in order to play "out" one also must play "in"; this was particularly well confirmed by pianist Dan Nimmer on a technically inspiring solo. In their one excursion into Hard Bop – a later development of Bebop that took place in the late 1950s – the JLCO rendered their version of the Benny Golson standard "Along Came Betty" that had to have been the smoothest piece of the evening. For their finale they chose the second Chick Corea classic (composed in 1967) called "Tones for Joan's Bones"; this was an up-tempo piece that featured most of the lead section players as well as a long-awaited drum solo from Ali Jackson that was as impressive musically as it was skillful.
Curiously, while there was no encore as such – the audience was nothing if not highly enthusiastic – perhaps there was too long a bowing from the band that the audience relented; in any event the musicians left the stage and the house lights went up and people started leaving. After about five minutes Marsalis suddenly appeared on the stage together with the pianist, bassist, and drummer and proceeded to play an encore. It was a short piece, unannounced, and was basically a jam for about 100 people. How appropriate! We shall never know.
At the risk of being repetitive, it must be said that the uniqueness of this orchestra is not only that the music it plays "swings" in the historical sense of Jazz, but the individuals of which it is comprised are all, without exception, world-class virtuosos in their own right. That they have blended into one cohesive unit is quite remarkable. As my friend and colleague pianist Elmer Gibson essentially noted in his similar review for CVNC some three years ago, Wynton Marsalis and the JLCO are the "real deal." Sine dubio!