in performance: jazz at lincoln center orchestra with wynton marsalis

wynton marsalis.

For all of the power in numbers the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra packs, its performance last night at the Kentucky Center for the Arts’ Whitney Hall in Louisville began with a slice of hushed sunshine. Instead of the full ensemble’s might, trumpeter/founder/artistic director Wynton Marsalis and pianist Dan Nimmer engaged in a duet exchange honoring Jelly Roll Morton. Unlike the precision and drive the Orchestra would dig into just minutes later, this summery opening dialogue was loose and playful but still full of the same scholarly assurance that has long been a trademark of all Marsalis-led projects. But this warm-up also let the audience in on how accessible the music that followed would be.

Nearly two hours later, the Orchestra had journeyed through works by Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, a few more Morton selections and original compositions by the band members. Tradition was stressed, and with good reason. The Orchestra remains today’s most learned and proficient touring organization in terms of reviving the jazz repertoires of multiple eras. But never did any of the performed works come across as museum pieces.

Ellington’s “Big Fat Alice’s Blues” (from the 1965 album “Concert in the Virgin Islands,” a record that, as Marsalis proudly pointed out in his introduction, was actually cut in New York) was a gorgeous vehicle for the alto sax blues lead of Sherman Irby with only segments of the Orchestra (the rhythm section and the reeds, specifically) adding color.

The Afro-Cuban heritage of Gillespie’s “Fiesta Mojo” was funneled into samba patterns neatly triggered by trumpeter Marcus Printup and saxophonist Dan Block (on flute for this tune) while a segment of Sonny Rollins’ “Freedom Suite” expanded the 1958 piece, originally recorded as a trio work, into the evening’s finest exhibition of the Orchestra’s full dynamic range and the striking saxophone animation of Walter Blanding.

Marsalis, who with each passing year becomes more like a modern day Gillespie for his between-song chats alone, asserted himself nicely in “Let My People Go.” The tune was essentially a movement from “God’s Trombones,” a suite composed by Orchestra trombonist Chris Crenshaw after the poetry of James Weldon Johnson. The full ensemble touched alternately on lyrical warmth, sass, swing and the blues. Marsalis, resourceful as always, packed all of that into a single, hair-raising solo.

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