The 15-piece Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra returned to Nashville Sunday night, and this time their destination was the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, where they performed a mix of repertory and a pair of originals during a 90-minute plus, two-set concert before a packed house. The JALC orchestra provides the best of two worlds in regards to jazz and improvised music.
They are thoroughly versed in the traditions of swing and blues, with each member an accomplished soloist and equally outstanding ensemble performer. The program was arranged to provide each section with its own showcase number. These never focused too long on any one member, so the spotlight remained on the big band.
The group also had a dynamic three-piece rhythm section, with drummer Ali Jackson able not only to demonstrate his proficiency on the standard kit but also branch out into various Latin and African rhythmic elements on occasion. Bassist Carlos Henriquez didn’t get many featured moments, but provided strong support and was especially sharp in exchanges with pianist Dan Nimmer during the Monk numbers played at the start of the opening set.
But the definite star of the show remains trumpeter/bandleader Wynton Marsalis, who’s gone over the decades from fierce, combative and controversial star of the ‘80s Young Lions movement to acclaimed populist narrator and familiar face on the 21st century cultural scene. He’s congenial, self-effacing and perhaps the JACL’s best ambassador these days for the notion that jazz isn’t something esoteric or removed from daily life, but instead a communal, delightful and engaging music that’s even better appreciated when the audience knows something about the history of the songs they’re hearing and the performers who created them.
Other members who shined included saxophonists Ted Nash, Sherman Irby and Walter Blanding and trumpeter Marcus Printup. Marsalis, who’s careful not to dominate the program, was featured on only two selections, the opening and closing numbers, and even there his assertive, ringing playing was only presented within the framework of group arrangements, exchanges with the other horns and then brief but memorable solo segments.
There were numerous highlights, among them a nearly eight-minute opening rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy,” with Marsalis, Blanding and Crenshaw among the soloists. They doubled up on Monk compositions with another sterling rendition of “Ugly Beauty,” which Marsalis informed the audience was “the only piece Monk ever wrote in waltz time.” They ably soared through the waltz structure, with spirited collective sections augmented by some dashing piano from Nimmer.
There was also a superb performance of Mingus’ “Moanin,” with multiple parts that accented the brass and reed section, with strong contributions from Irby and Blanding, plus an arrangement that, as Marsalis put it, “swung in a way where Mingus showed all those critics who said he couldn’t swing that he indeed knew how to when he wanted to.”
But perhaps the night’s favorite piece, at least in terms of crowd reaction, came late in the second set, when they turned to a Count Basie tune that originally featured Jimmy Rushing. “I left My Baby” was a 1957 epic piece with Rushing wailing over an equally formidable orchestral foundation.
Crenshaw did the vocal honors, but it was Victor Gomes whose exceptional clarinet solo midway was delivered in such emphatic fashion that upon its conclusion it drew loud, extensive roars and applause. The band clearly enjoyed duplicating the pace and edge behind Gomes and Crenshaw, putting a flourish to the piece’s closing section after Gomes completed his brilliant foray.
Add a couple of original works, one a Latin-tinged, multi-part piece near the end of the first set and a closing tune that finally gave the trumpet section its time up front. “We’ve been sitting back here listening to all these other sections and now it’s our moment,” was Marsalis’ intro to the night’s finale, and Jazz at Lincoln Center provided its audience with another example of how magnificent jazz performances can be both inspirational and enjoyable.