Jazz at Lincoln

        Center Orchestra

                   At   Symphony Center

                    By Dan Zeff

Chicago - The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is making its usual much anticipated annual visit to Symphony Center, this year showcasing the orchestra’s composing and arranging skills as much as its performing prowess.

     The orchestra, under the benevolent leadership of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, is surveying music and Americana of the 20th century, decade by decade. Marsalis announced that the orchestra had reached 1950 by its Chicago stop, playing original music composed and/or arranged by the orchestra members. The entire 100-miunute set consisted of original compositions heard by the overflow and enthusiastic audience for the first time.

     The 15-member orchestra is stocked with familiar faces, the stability of the group over the years contributing mightily to its brilliance. One missing musician was popular baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley, who died last May at the age of 86 after performing with the orchestra for 25 years. Temperley’s chair has been filled by Paul Nedzela, who played an eloquent solo tribute “Great Love for Joe” composed by orchestra trumpeter Marcus Printup.

     That commentary was enhanced by introductions from the composers, who passed a hand-held microphone from player to player before each original composition was presented. Although the music was announced as being attached to a particular chronological time during the past century, there seldom were familiar musical identifiers that suggested a particular decade. But by the end of the evening we did head major historical jazz themes, notably bebop, cool, and funk, all mixed in a general musical broth.  Most of the numbers were written in concise 4-5 minute playing time. There was no filler in any of the dozen or so compositions.
    The reed section, other than Nedzela, consisted of old favorites Ted Nash, Sherman Irby, Walter Blanding, and Victor Goines. The five reedmen are fluent in multiple instruments, giving the section the sound of a unit several times its actual size. The musicians sometimes played four different instruments during a single piece. The mountainous Sherman Irby dazzled on the soprano saxophone and Goines delivered a long and majestic Ben Webster-ish solo, but the highlights were distributed evenly among the five.
    The veteran trombone section of Vincent Gardner, Chris Crenshaw, and Elliot Mason all had their chops in perfect working order, delivering one heated and intricate solo after another.
    As usual, the rhythm section of Dan Nimmer (piano), Carlos Henriquez (bass), and Ali Jackson (drums) was tight, unobtrusively supply the essential rhythmic re-enforcement. Nimmer was his usual brilliant self, delivering one absorbing solo after another, touching stylistic bases from soul to mainstream to free. He deserved a number to himself.

     Jackson’s percussion work defines the term “tasteful.” Except when the composition demanded an extrovert dose of percussion work, Jackson playing lightly swinging background with a minimal drum kit and a maximum of rhythmic feeling. He was fascinating to watch, a cautionary lesson to all jazz drummers who feel they need to be heard in 10-minute sonic hammering solos.
    It would be ungrateful to criticize a program of original work played with such proficiency and élan, yet I wouldn’t have minded one or two recognizable pieces just to orient my ear to some familiar sounds.  But Marsalis obviously wants to keep his ensemble fresh, and turning them loose to provide new material wedded to the 20th century produced music that was never less than listenable and often exciting, a highly accessible challenge for the audience and band alike.
         The Symphony Center Presents series continues on March 17 with a visit from an all-star sextet including tenor saxophonist Chris Potter and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon. For tickets call visit  or call 312 294 3000.


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