With road tours like this, it also serves as the perfect means for introducing new compositions like those of saxophonist Ted Nash. This concert was a wonderful mix of old and new, tributes and freshly minted music. Most of the fifteen musicians were featured in one of many solos during the concert, and it would be impossible and even unfair to choose any one solo as the best: all are consummate artists and masters of the art and craft of their respective instruments. Dressed in black suits, white shirts and striped ties, the colour of the stripe section-based, the full house at the venerable Orpheum Theatre was given a treat.
Marsalis, true to his custom, sat in the trumpet section in the back row, rarely stepping to the front. He used a hand mike to make his perspicacious comments and to explain the next piece; sadly, although the miking of the band collectively and during solos was excellent, the sound quality of his interjections was awful and often unintelligible. The grande dame of west coast theatres, first opened in 1927 as a vaudeville house, and lovingly restored as Vancouver’s most opulent performance space in 1977, with its fine acoustics, could not be held responsible, so what was the problem? But the silver lining was the opportunity to listen to the music, pure and unadulterated, a straight-up big-band jazz concert, without worrying about the commentary. The appreciative audience was predominantly grey-haired and senior, with a scattering of young people. Is big-band jazz only for those who can remember the bands of the forties and fifties? Much of the work of the JLCO and of Marsalis in particular is to educate the young. It may work in New York City, but the west coast seems to be missing a beat.
The first half began in a nice and easy swing fashion with Joe Henderson’s title track from his 1964 Blue Note album, "Inner Urge", arranged by saxophonist Ted Nash, with solos on alto and trumpet. Irving Berlin’s 1926 classic, "Blue Skies", was first arranged by Fletcher Henderson for the new Benny Goodman Orchestra. The JLCO conjured images of a crowded World War II dance floor, thronged with dancers, and around the bandstand a mob of aficionados eager to get a close look at zoot-suited musicians taking turns to stand in serried ranks and swing from side to side as the piece reached its climax.
"Ceora", a great jazz ballad from the pen of hard-bop trumpeter Lee Morgan, was given a Latin twist: muted brass, two flutes, solo trombone, and the best evidence of the maxim "keep it simple" for drummers as shirt-sleeved Ali Jackson performed delicate rhythms with a single drumstick. Jackson was a piece of work all night with his varied percussion: cymbals, clapping, tambourine, using every inch and surface of the drum-set to support and maintain a steady, interesting pulse that complemented the soloists. "Down by the Riverside", a simple and familiar tune, was transformed into a complex jazz piece, yet never lost its connection with its gospel roots. The high point of this energetic rampage, reminiscent of the Stan Kenton Orchestra, was the call and response improvisation by Marcus Printup and Sean Jones. Veteran baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley was introduced as "our secret weapon" led a gorgeously sensuous interpretation of Billy Strayhorn’s "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing", evoking film noir images of an after-hours smoke-filled bar, as Temperley wove his meanderings to re-phrase Ellington’s thought that "a sax is a woman".
Marsalis’ introduction to the new material spoke of the many JLCO collaborations, most particularly with New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The MOMA-inspired suite "Portrait in Seven Shades" (2007) by Ted Nash is a jazz equivalent of Mussorgsky’s "Pictures at an Exhibition". For the Picasso piece, "Part IV", the trombone and trumpet sections play toreador tunes and flamenco rhythms with cascading chords to take us to sun-drenched Spain. This was Picasso at his most Cubist and whimsical as trombone soloist Chris Crenshaw bounced in and out of his seat. Leader Nash took the reins and brought the four sections of the orchestra together in a storming finish.
Marsalis wrote a sacred suite to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, based on the traditional Latin mass form. His choice for the second half opener, "Offertory III: The Holy Ghost", was introduced by pianist Dan Nimmer, looking like a youthful Bill Evans, with a pounding insidious left-hand riff, and the horns frenetically driving the piece, in place of the 100-voice gospel choir at its debut.
Marsalis and Ghanaian drummer Yacub Addy wrote "Bamboula Dance" as a tribute to the African-American slaves who would congregate every Sunday in Congo Square, New Orleans, the only place they were allowed to sing and dance. The piece is a dreamlike march, childlike in its apparent simplicity, as five clarinets play snake-charmer music that ultimately fades to silence.
The Ellington piece, "Braggin’ in Brass" was only recorded once by his orchestra; Marsalis said it was almost unplayable. So the three young lions in the trombone den, Chris Crenshaw, Vincent Gardner and Elliot Mason, proved him wrong as they attacked its fast alternating staccato notes, supported by early bebop muted trumpets in response.
Benny Carter’s last piece (2000), "Again and Again", a slow ballad, was performed as a showcase for alto saxophonists Ted Nash and Sherman Irby. The former played edgy interval jumps, but the latter answered like a kindly uncle with the richness of tone and vibrato of a bygone era.
In "Vitoria Suite: Movement X", the orchestra again took us back to Spain, to the city of Vitoria and its annual jazz festival. The piece is a heady mix of Spanish music liberally seasoned with the best of today’s swinging jazz.
The crowd’s standing ovation elicited the encore "Free to Be", from the album "The Magic Hour", but just with a quintet of piano, bass, drums, tenor saxophone (by the talented Walter Blanding, Jr.), and, of course, Marsalis on trumpet. The simple 32 bar bebop tune featured an outstanding solo from Marsalis on which he pulled out all the stops and proved beyond any reasonable doubt that he is the greatest trumpet player alive today.