By: Estefanía Romero
I witnessed how The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis played at the historical Mexican building Alhóndiga de Granaditas in Guanajuato city, and a couple of days later at the Auditorio Nacional, in Mexico City. Two concerts with the same repertoire, but extremely different performances. The sound and the improvising go along with the mood, the conditions and the locations; so I had two quite different interesting experiences, which I´ll comment on next.
Both nights began with “Vitoria Suite”, by Wynton Marsalis. The work, according to Marsalis, has a blues as its base, and added elements of the indigenous Basque and Flamenco music from Spain. These musical ideas were pretty evident as Paco de Lucía played a fundamental role in the original recording, a truly unique material. Nevertheless, the recent live presentations of a fragment of this piece only portrayed jazz elements, leaving aside a big part of what makes this material exceptional. However, the melodical riff they used as protagonist was extremely catchy and it totally worked to create a connection with the audience.
Then, they played “The Crave”, by Jelly Roll Morton, “a singular and unique man of tradition”, they called him. This composition was arranged by Carlos Henriquez, in a symbolic gesture (given the Latin name of the New Yorker talent), considering that Roll Morton was among the principal advocates of the idea that the Latin music represented a special ingredient to the first shapes of jazz in New Orleans.
“Stuffy Turkey”, by Thelonius Monk, was arranged by the saxophone player Victor Goinez. Monk, as plenty of us know, was an important face of the bebop era; he is known for the uncomfortable shapes of his sound, filled with dissonances and some sort of “erratic” ornaments that worked to make his own voice and style. Even though, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, having Wynton Marsalis as its leader, has always stood up for the jazz sound that preceded the bebop era, taking a few interesting elements from the latest one. Hence, their interpretation of “Stuffy Turkey” sounds close-fitting to what Duke Ellington would have done with it. I actually wrote these last words during the first concert, and I got really excited during the second when Marsalis commented that their orchestra was founded with surviving members of the Duke Ellington’s orchestra from 1955 to 1974, so it all makes sense.
I must add that Kenny Rampton is my new jazz hero. When I heard his solo at the Alhóndiga I immediately thought that was one of the most surprising trumpet solos I’ve ever heard live, far from the classic tendency to imitate the icons. He did a call and response within himself. He used his sordina never attempting, as many do, to be a second-class Miles Davis. Because it is actually possible nowadays to own a personality. Also, Rampton gave us a reminiscence of an old Dixieland characteristic: the animal sounds imitation on an instrument. The solo was of course absolutely different to the one at the Auditorio Nacional, which was also very gracious in its own way. Just to add an extra thought, the saxophone player Paul Nedzela, with his clean and impeccable technique, remains being a not very expressive musician.
The orchestra also played “The Moontrane”, written by Woody Shaw when he was 17 or 18 years old. It was arranged by Victor Goinez. Marsalis commented on this one having a very complex harmony, and it bloomed, in the hands of Alexa Tarantino, who developed creative figures, representing some sort of search. After her performance, the trombone solo of Vincent Garner at the Alhóndiga was more rhythmical than melodical, whereas the one in the Auditorio was more like a melody representing the right limit between the attractive hardbop and the dissimilar figures coming from the free jazz world, holding its orderliness thanks to the melody dictated by the contrabass in hands of Henriquez at the same time.
The most “relaxing” moment of the night was “Big Fat Alice’s Blues”, by Duke Ellington. I must say that if I had stuck to the thoughts I had when I heard this one at the Alhóndiga, I would have qualified this part of the show as a plain and boring performance, brought out from laziness. However, after hearing the same piece at the Auditorio Nacional, I got struck out from the difference the sound system made. In this case, we were able to hear all the details, inflections, and intentions in the instruments, as every movement had a profound feeling to express. To be fair, it is really difficult to play a slow theme and give it the sensible dimensions it depends on, without messing it up with distractions. Anyhow, Sherman Irby made clear he is a genius, whose long experience playing jazz and embracing its forms since he was 12 years old, came out in control of this tune.
The night went on with “Man from Tanganyika”, by McCoy Tyner, as exotic as the 60’s, when it was composed. Back in the day, the melodical hardbop reached popularity, and part of its characteristic sound had to do in many cases with incorporation of music from different cultures. In this case, the Jazz at Lincoln Orchestra went for brushstrokes of Latin jazz, and a parade of solos was displayed.
Along the concert we found the elegance of a music that, although being charged with emotions, never had the need to be loud, even if there were a couple of mismatches at the Auditorio Nacional, when the sound system had sudden volume jumps, everything was under control most of the time.
In the original recording of “Man from Tanganyika”, by Tyner, we find a brutal drum solo indeed. Nonetheless, the drummer Obed Calvaire shone with his unique solo, which graciously danced almost melodically over a repetitive simple beat on a battery cymbal.
In both concerts I found myself thinking on how playing jazz is certainly a challenging game of overcoming clichés. This orchestra didn’t lay on a walking bass overdose, or saxophones running towards a Charlie Parker sound (which has become the norm in Mexico). This is the real deal of a jazz virtuoso: knowing the harmony and work over it, instead of overexposing a repetition of patterns that becomes extremely boring for those who love jazz.
“Cherokee”, a standard by Ray Noble from the 30’s, was managed in a prodigious Wynton Marsalis solo that shifted rapidly with freedom and charm among rhythms, dynamics, timbres, instrument range and ornaments. New Orleans all the way through, always keeping a coherent speech with the rest of the ensemble. At the Alhóndiga, this interpretation gave us a sensitive and spectacular moment, in which Marsalis’ trumpet seemed to be a character inviting the orchestra to follow him, and they accepted the calling. If you, my dear reader, watched any classic cartoons, you know what I’m talking about here.
Then, we had “Conglomerate”, by Chris Chrenshaw. The orchestra got divided and it played in duets and trios, but the music didn’t dilute at all. The sound was still thick, filled with intentions that simulated the vastness of a great ensemble.
To close the nights, Julian Lee, the youngest member of the orchestra played a nice bebop, also tending to sound somehow a little bit more like in the New Orleans tradition.
The arrangements were superb, I loved the way transitions were always articulated without any moment of silence, giving us a special sense of unity, with a stylish musical gesture. They emphasized how, even though being different, the team of instrumentalists is always moving towards the same direction. When there was any kind of force pull, all of them would fall on the same spot, without losing any characteristics of their own sound; even so if they moved on in a crescendo, or from one side to the other.
Making a clear difference to other orchestras I’ve heard in my country, the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s managed to bring the best out of all its players. About the soli parts, although usually considered to be the climaxes in an orchestra concert, these were constantly measured, and saved on to really create an impact in the most determinant moments. Also, all these were very articulated in time and form, thus creating the feeling of a morphine shot inside each one of us, every time they occurred.
There was indeed a general change between the Alhóndiga de Granaditas and the Auditorio Nacional performances. I dare to think that, for this second concert, all the members of the orchestra were way more relaxed and filled up with energy. We can say that both concerts were magnificent, but the second one was definitely more effusive, and the acoustics of an enclosed space necessarily helped a lot. It was clear there was an enormous effort taken at the Alhóndiga to make a great concert, but the partials, a vital component of the music, only seemed to be truly sharped and clear due to the walls of the Auditorio.
Anyway, being part in the audience for concerts on this level, with musicians that get the tradition from their parents and own culture, allows us to comprehend a little bit more the reasons why jazz can be so intricate and sublime. Have you ever experienced the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis live? Please share your thoughts!