The concert began, curiously, with arrangements of two nursery rhymes, "Old McDonald Had A Farm" and "Itsy Bitsy Spider." Apparently these were dedicated to some young people in the audience, following on the group's work with them over the previous few days with the Capitol Jazz program. A nice gesture but, frankly, tedious for the grown-ups in the audience. Equally tedious, for me, was the obligatory Dixieland pastiche that Marsalis always seems compelled to present. This time it was Sidney Bechet's "Weary Blues" performed by a sextet from within the band. They approached it with gusto, but it went on far too long. If we recall Charles Mingus' words "If Charlie Parker was a gunslinger there'd be a whole lot of dead copycats," it is a mystery to me why this doesn't apply to Louis Armstrong.
These were the rough spots; the rest of the concert, particularly the second half, contained some interesting and enjoyable music, most of it arranged by members of the ensemble. Bassist Carlos Henriquez arranged Thelonius Monk's "By-Ya," while trombonists Chris Crenshaw and Vincent Gardner took on Monk's "Light Blue" and Kenny Dorham's "Stage West," respectively. Dorham was the featured composer on the suitably brassy "Trompeta Toccata" which featured Ryan Kisor, and lead altoist Sherman Irby had a chance to shine on the gorgeous Benny Carter ballad "Again and Again." And Thelonius Monk appeared again with an arrangement of his "Ugly Beauty" by the leader. As for the soloists, Marsalis led the way with several typically strong contributions, followed closely by Crenshaw, altoist Ted Nash, Blanding on tenor, pianist Dan Nimmer and Joe Temperley's gruff baritone.
These are all strong players. Their claim to be "15 of the finest jazz soloists and ensemble players today" is probably fair enough, although when the Daily Telegraph called the ensemble "the finest big band in the world today" they were guilty of overstatement. (Perhaps it is the over sensitivity of my "hype" meter but I would like to hear their assessment of the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni Big Band, which is packed with poll winners and NEA jazz masters, Maria Schneider's orchestra, with its instrumental colors matched to Schneider's effusive writing, or a number of European ensembles.)
If asked to describe the band's style I would say "Institutional Jazz." Jazz at Lincoln Center has become an institution, and by doing so shoulders the same educational burden that is shared by the Washington Performing Arts Society, goals described in their literature as creating "profound opportunities for connecting the community to artists, in both education and performance. . . " eliminating "the space between artists and audiences . . . so that all may share life-long opportunities to deepen their cultural knowledge, enrich their lives, and expand their understanding and compassion of the world through the universal language of the arts." I could not agree more with these goals, but I think they can be better served by presenting a broader vision of what jazz has to offer.