Marsalis & JLCO Serve Up Swinging Surprises in Bay Area


The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra performs at the Bing Concert Hall in Stanford, California, on Sept. 30.

(Photo: Harrison Truong)

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) commenced its 2016–’17 touring season with five shows in Northern California over consecutive nights starting in Davis (near the capital city of Sacramento) on Sept. 28.

The second and third nights of this fledgling tour provided an opportunity for comparison and contrast, as the JLCO made venue debuts at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland on Sept. 29 and at Bing Concert Hall on the San Francisco Peninsula on Sept. 30.

The Paramount date was presented by the University of California-Berkeley’s Cal Performances organization, while the latter concert was produced by Stanford Live and hosted on the university’s campus. This coincidence of programming created a fun, if unmentioned, extension of the longstanding “Cal versus Stanford” academic and football rivalry.

Originally opened in 1913, the Art Deco Paramount Theatre is a former cinema that has hosted concerts over the last couple of decades by artists ranging from Sting and Björk to Nicki Minaj and Buena Vista Social Club. Cal Performances is venturing beyond its native confines to offer events in neighboring Oakland, and the concert on Sept. 29 (in the city’s hip Uptown neighborhood) was its first.

Ten members of the 15-piece JLCO visited and taught at five local schools during the band’s time in East Bay, and 500 of those students were given tickets for the performance. So it often sounded like one of the pop or rock concerts that one might find at the Paramount, with a roar of applause starting from the back in the balcony and working its way toward the stage.

The 11-number performance began with Wynton Kelly’s “Temperance” (from Kelly At Midnight, released in 1960) with pianist Dan Nimmer providing a searching, unaccompanied introduction to JLCO trumpeter Marcus Printup’s arrangement.

A sextet with Walter Blanding Jr. (on clarinet), trombonist Vincent Gardner and trumpeter Kenny Rampton performed a stunning version of “Mood Indigo”—with Nimmer, double bassist Carlos Henriquez and drummer Ali Jackson Jr.—utilizing Ellington’s original arrangement.

UC Berkeley Professor of Composition and Improvisational Practices Myra Melford joined the orchestra to perform a version of her “The Strawberry,” as arranged by JLCO multi-reedist Ted Nash. The pianist performed the same number a week prior at the “Handful of Keys: A Century of Jazz Piano,” the Jazz at Lincoln Center season opener in Manhattan.

Melford’s earthy, stride-fueled solo was a welcome surprise to those who associate her with more abstract playing, as was the angularity of bandleader Wynton Marsalis’ own atypical solo.

An expansive Printup arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s “Armageddon” and a flowing Gardner arrangement of Al Dubin and Harry Warren’s “Lulu’s Back In Town” both showcased the strength of the entire big band. A rendition of the Gershwin tune “Summertime” put the spotlight on Victor Goines and his sweet soprano saxophone tone.

Trombonist Chris Crenshaw had an opportunity to shine in two different capacities during Nash’s “The Time For The Healing Of Wounds.” The trombonist impressively got to display his instrumental prowess as well as his vocal impersonation and spoken word skills by reciting a Nelson Mandela speech on a number that was recorded for Nash’s new album, Presidential Suite: Eight Variations On Freedom (Motéma Music).

Bing Concert Hall opened in January 2013 and is an in-the-round “vineyard”-style venue. The Sept. 30 concert had two sets and an intermission, perhaps catering to the preferences and needs of some of the older members of the audience (including your humble reviewer).

The first half of the program was devoted to Duke Ellington, starting with “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” (which, Marsalis said, the crowd wasn’t likely to hear elsewhere) and Billy Strayhorn’s “Take The ‘A’ Train.”

Reedist Sherman Irby’s playing glistened as he took up Johnny Hodges’ alto saxophone role on “Isfahan” from 1967’s The Far East Suite, and Henriquez dug deep during his feature on “Portrait Of Wellman Braud,” an homage to Ellington’s onetime double bassist (who is also Marsalis’ maternal grand-uncle).

The second half was divided between band member originals (two pieces from Nash’s Presidential Suite and Henriquez’s “Keeping The Story Alive”) and arrangements (Crenshaw’s take on Shorter’s “Mama ‘G’” and Irby’s interpretation of Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning.”)

The locally based singer Kenny Washington, who made an unannounced guest appearance on Sept. 29, returned with a full introduction by Marsalis to sit in and deliver a wordless scat solo on “Rhythm-A-Ning.” Washington and Marsalis’ father, Ellis, were friends and contemporaries back in New Orleans, Marsalis explained.

Between the two concerts, JLCO only repeated three numbers (“Mood Indigo,” “The Time For The Healing Of The Wounds” and “Rhythm-A-Ning”) and Marsalis retold just one story.

The 15-member group swung hard both nights and delighted two very different sets of audiences in contrasting settings. Whether delivering a single set with an encore or two sets with an intermission, Marsalis and JLCO proved that they can easily adjust to a room while maintaining the band’s cohesive, bright dynamic.

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