On The Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra : A Blog Supreme For those in the know, it's usually more fun to talk about Wynton Marsalis and his institution than it is to talk about their music. But the JLCO's recent tour reminds us that the house band ain't so bad, either.
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On The Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra

Wynton Marsalis (center) and members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra perform in Washington, D.C. in 2009. Theo Wargo/Getty Images hide caption

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Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Wynton Marsalis (center) and members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra perform in Washington, D.C. in 2009.

Theo Wargo/Getty Images

For those in the know, it's usually more fun to talk about Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center — the organization Marsalis is artistic director of — than it is to talk about their music. Marsalis and JALC have been controversial in the jazz world almost since they've been worthy of any news items; the sounds of Marsalis' music are often afterthoughts to the debates about the canon he presents, or his definition of jazz, or how his organization spends the money it receives.

Most human beings don't care about these things. They know JALC through its musical presentations, many with the 15-piece jazz orchestra bearing its name. In addition to playing often at its home base, it tours with some frequency — it's currently criss-crossing North America for nearly a month. I caught last night's performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., presented by Washington Performing Arts Society, and was reminded that behind the debates, there are a lot of talented musicians putting on lots of concerts. So I wanted to register a few impressions of the experience.

The band was, as usual, highly precise; sax solis were fluidly together, brass intonation was spot-on, stomps and handclaps and entrances were otherwise delivered with customary precision. There were five saxophonists, four trumpeters, three pieces inspired by 20th century visual artists (also three trombonists), two arrangements of Chick Corea pieces, and one Wynton Marsalis.

But these are things one might expect from a Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra show. Here are three more of my most salient thoughts, and one thing I still wonder about:

  1. Everybody is a well-rounded musician. All of the orchestra's members are among the better improvisers out there, especially in a more mainstream expression. But they also all have multiple talents. They can all read down new charts effortlessly, it seems; they must do it all the time. All the reed players doubled on at least two other instruments, from bass clarinet to curved soprano saxophone. All the brass players seemed to command at least two mutes. Trombonist Chris Crenshaw offered up a "Jimmy Rushing with Count Basie"-like vocal display on "I Left My Baby (Standing In The Back Door Crying)." And — this is most important — most band members, not just Marsalis, contribute tunes and/or arrangements. (Wynton landed but one of his pieces in the program.) In eight tunes, there were compositions or arrangements by Crenshaw, bassist Carlos Henriquez, saxophonist Ted Nash, trumpeter Marcus Printup and saxophonist Sherman Irby. Everybody swings; they also read, write and otherwise multitask.
  2. Little of the music diverges far from swing and the blues. And by that, I mean no-doubt-about-it swing, and blues sounds you think you've heard before, even if you haven't. As a band which embraces a wide stylistic repertory, this is as close as it gets to having a defining aesthetic. Some people feel this is timeless; others may interpret it as perfunctory. The rhythm section — Dan Nimmer on piano, Carlos Henriquez on bass, Ali Jackson on drums — had a very sure hookup, but it only ever felt safely on the beat, rarely dancing flexibly around it. (Jackson drops snare bombs, but doesn't throw a lot of curveballs.) There might be odd textures representing visual abstraction in art, but the dissonances never went too long without resolving into familiar forms and grooves. A piece called "2-3's Adventure" had lots of Afro-Cuban clave and montuno underpinnings, but also went into straight-ahead ching-ching-a-ling swing for Sherman Irby's alto solo. Of course, the band is very competent at straightahead swing, but I found the odder, mix-it-up pieces ultimately more affecting. "The Tree of Freedom," from Marsalis' Vitoria Suite, was a clear winner, with layers upon layers of pungent colors over a vaguely Spanish waltz; a full-band arrangement of Chick Corea's minimal ballad "Crystal Silence" brought out the orchestra's brooding, achingly moody side. During each piece, you could sense creativity and challenge in the room.
  3. A little charisma goes a long way. This is especially true for jazz, where so many performers seem constitutionally averse to even acknowledging a crowd. And Wynton Marsalis has more than a little charisma. As the emcee, he has this way of distilling conceptual modern art or geopolitical intrigue into folksy wit; he also has a drawl, and uses it frequently. It feels genuine; he's a ham who obviously cares. And while he dominates the banter, he certainly doesn't solo on, or count off, or write most of the tunes. (The three trumpeters to his left — Ryan Kisor, Kenny Rampton, Marcus Printup — took most of the high note glory, whether soloing or reading the lead part.) The band looked appropriately immaculate, all in the same suit and tie. And even if you wish that jazz had more than one public spokesperson — and I do — you can't knock Marsalis for being publicly classy, friendly, inviting. You get the sense that the audience felt it got its money's worth, and left feeling enriched, in some substantial part because Wynton couched it all so well. Jazz needs more of that, wherever it's from.

Now, an unresolved meta-issue. I did notice a lot of paying guests there, of all ages, and very few fellow insiders or musicians or superfans I knew. That's at least 2,000 people (2,454 is the capacity, but a few seats were open), presumably not frequent jazz concertgoers.

The attendance pattern suggests to me that this band is incredibly valuable in the role of jazz ambassador. It makes sense. Marsalis' chief ideal is pretty simple — that appreciating the way jazz works teaches us a lot about being good people — and it's a hopeful one. (Beneath my own cynical insulation, I might even believe it too.) He's really good at communicating his values, as I've discussed; the JLCO can also put butts in seats, and consistently educates and entertains its crowds with good jazz music. It's enough to make you want to drop any grudges with the organization it represents, at least for a few hours.

Perhaps some of the crowd will discover that good jazz happens an awful lot in D.C., usually in more intimate venues (even within the Kennedy Center itself) and for significantly less money. Right now, the JLCO isn't yet triggering a trickle down of fandom to the extent it needs to for a healthy, sustainable jazz community. But the potential is there — what would have to happen to make it so?

So if the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra comes to your town — and they're one the few bands left which actually might — and you're curious, you should go! If you fear the narrative spun around Wynton Marsalis, the band itself is still worth an unclouded, honest appraisal. And if you're new to jazz, it's a pretty good introduction to the precepts and possibilities of the art form.

I will say, though: The JLCO brings a good game, but it certainly isn't the only game around. So if you like anything about the show, I hope it leads you to check out some other jazz musicians in and around your town, too. I presume it's what Wynton would want — but now we're talking about him again ...