It began and ended with rhythm. Not the kinds of rhythm one might normally associate with a world class jazz ensemble, although there was plenty of that, too, in the forms of expert swing and blues. No, last night’s performance by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at Richmond’s EKU Center for the Arts also operated at very different rhythmic level.
Opening with Chant to Call the Indians Out, from bandleader Wynton Marsalis’ 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio Blood on the Fields, the performance embraced the brooding, organic pulse of handclaps, foot stomps, a vocal chant from trombonist Vincent Gardner, an extended solo from Marsalis that built from a slow bluesy refrain to a swing-savvy boil over beautiful ensemble punctuation from the orchestra’s four-man saxophone section.
The concert ended, fittingly, with The Caboose, the last tune from the orchestra’s 1999 album Big Train, a ballad-style offering performed almost like a hymn with an ensemble chant that slowly collapsed as the musical locomotive roared into the distance.
An ensemble powerfully versed with a deep jazz repertoire, the concert took a curious turn (at least when compared to other regional performances the orchestra has presented over the years) by sticking largely to Marsalis’s own works. A lean blues reading of Corrina, Corrina (performed at the beginning of the second set with the orchestra pared down to a septet) and a luxurious version of Horace Silver’s epic (and richly rhythmic) Senor Blues arranged by bassist Carlos Henriquez briefly opened the evening up to the outside jazz world. Otherwise, the repertoire presented Marsalis as a sort of a global tour guide.
Especially inviting was a trio of fine tunes from the orchestra’s 2010 Vitoria Suite (The Tree of Freedom, Basque Song and Menditzorrotza Swing) that worked off accents of Basque music and other Spanish inspirations to close the first set.
This is where the orchestra’s remarkable dynamics took flight. Dan Nimmer’s opening piano rumble on The Tree of Freedom led into a lustrous baritone sax solo by Joe Temperly that floated over a chorus of flutes. But Menditzorrotza Swing had it all – another sterling solo from Marsalis, an equally engaging tenor sax feature from Walter Blanding and a drum break from Ali Jackson played exclusively on the rims of the instrument to produce animated percussive chatter.