JLCO Launches ‘100 Years of Jazz’ Series with Jazz Age Suite

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On Feb. 26, 1917, the Original Dixieland Jass Band, a quintet from New Orleans, entered the Victoria Talking Machine Company’s headquarters at 46 W. 38th Street in Manhattan, took the freight elevator up to the top floor and performed a rendition of “Livery Stable Blues” as a rotating cylinder captured their sound in wax.

The 78 r.p.m. record that emerged from that session is often called the first jazz recording ever made, and to celebrate the 100th anniversary of that milestone, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra has commissioned a series of concerts for the 2017 season that explores an era of jazz history through new and historic compositions.

The first of those commissions was performed on Oct. 29, as the orchestra returned from a month-long tour to premiere Untamed Elegance, a new work by JLCO reedist Victor Goines inspired by the music of the Jazz Age.

The full crowd on hand at the venue’s stunning Rose Hall was also treated to a selection of period songs from the era curated by Goines and performed with the big band and special guest Jon Irabagon on tenor saxophone.

Roughly defined as the slice of time between 1919 and 1929, the Jazz Age marked a period of decadence for the United States. Young people, having emerged from the tumult of World War I, held new ambitions to cut loose and socialize. With a bounty of capital at their disposal—the Great Depression had yet to bleed whole cities dry—Americans hitched up their skirts and “drew back into adolescence,” as Goines so eloquently put it in his pre-concert remarks.

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra proved a natural time machine back to that era, channeling a decade in which flapper dresses, long cigarette holders and mink coats were en vogue.

The group began the journey with an arrangement of Horace Henderson’s “Big John Special,” a hurdling swing tune written by the younger brother of famous bandleader Fletcher Henderson. Goines’ arrangement was careful to preserve the song’s Jazz Age DNA—those crisp, popping trumpets bleats, warbly trombone solis and velvety saxophone lines—while infusing the music splashes of modern color.

The band’s next song, an interpretation of “Singin’ The Blues,” required that the ensemble transition from a big band to a small combo. After a cumbersome attempt to reconfigure the bandstand—with some sheet music being knocked over not once, but twice—the group settled into a lineup that recalled the original 1927 recording by Frankie Trumbauer and Bix Beiderbecke, which many jazz historians agree was the first jazz ballad ever recorded.

Goines’ arrangement featured long, lonesome swoops on the clarinet, bubbly trumpet chatter and a drum pattern light as rain. The song also featured JLCO Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis’ first solo of the night, and the trumpeter offered up a litany of fresh, undaunted ideas.

Subsequent numbers reeled off like signposts on the jazz timeline. Duke Ellington was of course represented, first through an arrangement of “Double Check Stomp,” which the bandleader wrote for an episode of Amos & Andy in 1930, and later trough his immortal “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” and “Mood Indigo,” on which Gardner, trumpeter Kenny Rampton, and reedist Walter Blanding congregated around a single microphone to perform the otherworldly opening motif.

In a similar effort to evoke the original spirit of the era, the group’s rendition of “Dead Man Blues,” by Jelly Roll Morton, included the now famous pre-song narration and funeral dirge.

Bassist Carlos Henriquez later flexed serious muscle on “My Pretty Girl,” a Charles Fulcher composition that, in its first recorded version, featured a leaping bass solo by the great Steve Brurns, and the group closed out the first part of the performance with Morton’s hurdling “Milenberg Joys.”

The second portion of the concert consisted entirely of Goines’ six-part Untamed Elegance suite, and began with the reedist—now the Director of Jazz Studies at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music—inviting guest artist Irabagon to the stage.

The Mostly Other People Do the Killing reedist joined the group for a six compositions that at once celebrated the past and embraced the present, acknowledging the JLCO’s philosophy that “everything old is new again.”

Under Goines’ agile leadership, the band swung through songs that resonated on harmonic and political frequencies. The suite-opening “The Business Of America Is Business” derived its title from a Calvin Coolidge quote, and placed Irabagon—whose style leans toward the avant-garde —into the context of traditional swing. He adapted to his new surroundings admirably, taking flight on solos that would have been at home on a 1920s dance floor.

He likewise uncoiled on “The Elephant In the Room,” a composition inspired by an apocryphal conversation held between presidents Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding on the latter’s inauguration.

Two newcomers to the group—Shareef Clayton on trumpet and Adam Birnbaum on piano—each received turns in the spotlight, Clayton soloing forcefully and creatively with plunger mute and Birnbaum adding a modernist lens to 1920s-era stride passages on “Laboratories Of Ideas.” (As it turned out, the 100th anniversary of the first recording jazz wasn’t the only thing being feted that night. Regular JLCO pianist Dan Nimmer was at home celebrating the birth of his second child.)

Goines nodded to other illustrious aspects of the Jazz Age that night, evoking the giddiness of the repeal of Prohibition with his composition “Drunk As A Skunk,” and later summing up the spirit of the era with “Bold, Naked And Sensational,” which, like its title, was both raw and refined.

But it was the title song, “Untamed Elegance: The ‘It’ Thing,” that was the night’s most alluring. Dedicated to the silent film star Clara Bow, the song was the suite’s only ballad, and with its unhurried exoticism and compelling sense of mystery, it became a portal into another time.

(Note: To read a review of the ‘Ella 100’ concert at the Apollo Theater, click here.)

—Brian Zimmerman

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