Paul Simon Plays Alpha Dog with Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra
From its inception, Jazz at Lincoln Center has been both a stellar showcase for exemplary jazz as well as an albatross of financial burdens, including a three-venue operation, a large staff and debt. Through the challenging economic strife of the past few years, the fact that the nonprofit institution forged by Wynton Marsalis still remains a vital player in the jazz world is remarkable. But it’s also meant that the jazz statesman’s swing-and-blues vision has had to be somewhat sullied by the reality that the rent has to be paid, and that’s a tall order for straight-up, acoustic jazz—even in New York, where both the locals and tourists appreciate and applaud the city’s embrace of the music. An appearance by a major jazz icon may sell out the Rose Theater, but more sellouts are an imperative.
Which brings us to this year’s Jazz at Lincoln Center Gala, dubbed The Paul Simon Songbook. Featuring Simon with his band and Marsalis with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, it amounted to three packed nights at the Rose Theater, including the special donors show/after-concert dinner (April 18) and two more concert evenings (April 19 and 20), both of which also had sky-high ticket prices. The shows were fundraisers, after all, for the nonprofit organization.
But, judging from last year’s gala—with crowd-draw Eric Clapton collaborating with Marsalis on a disappointing blues set—it was uncertain how the Simon-Marsalis meeting would turn out, given the trumpeter/bandleader’s penchant for steering shows in his desired direction.
Score one for Simon, well known for the meticulous crafting of his songs, who smartly enlisted his own top-notch, eight-member band to lead the way through the 15-song, 100-minute show. Even though JALC Orchestra members arranged the music for the tunes, they mostly applied a light touch—essentially embellishing the multilayered sound with a bank of horn support and improvised solos, all of which were brief and oftentimes exhilarating. And guitarist Simon sang. At 70, his voice was pristine.
The April 19 show opened ebulliently with the finger-snapping “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes,” arranged by bassist Carlos Henriquez to accentuate the horn section as an expansive backup group and opening a window for Marsalis to solo. More respect for the essence of the song came with “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” (a Marcus Printup arrangement that featured several solo breaks) and “Slip Slidin’ Away” (a Marsalis arrangement calling for the orchestra to play with call-and-response swing). On a percussive rendering of “Further To Fly” (drummer Ali Jackson’s interpretation), Simon sang without guitar, but then picked it back up to rock and swing through “Crazy Love” (arranged by saxophonist Ted Nash) with rousing harmony horn support.
A special guest at the show was vocalist Aaron Neville, who joined in for a bouncing “Take Me To The Mardi Gras,” with horns shouting, before picking up the tempo for the only non-Simon song of the night, “Rockin’ Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu.” Neville then said, “Thanks for writing this song, Paul,” and delivered a soulful interpretation of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” with the orchestra feeling the tune with majestic horn swells.
During an interlude of welcome, Marsalis praised Simon’s band and how effortlessly the three days of “dream” rehearsals went. He mentioned how impressed he was with Simon’s “nuanced way” of handling the material and arrangements.
The show continued with the cooker “That Was Your Mother,” with the horns torching the song’s Cajun/zydeco/blues vibe. The musicians rollicked through “Kodachrome,” channeled gospel with ecstatic horns on “Gone At Last” and played into the percussive Latin zone on “Late In The Evening.” An intimate take on “The Sound Of Silence” had Simon musically conversing with Marsalis, who embraced the melody with his own quiet touches while Simon band member Mark Stewart graced the piece with cello.
After a charged take on “The Boxer” and before the full-tilt encore “You Can Call Me Al,” Simon told the audience, “This has been an extraordinary experience of bands with two different sounds and musicians who have made an amalgam. … It’s quite extraordinary to hear my music played in different ways. It’s quite a thrill.”
And quite a thrill it was, with the curiosity of what the two groups could do if they took this extraordinary show on the road.