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Tag: Wynton Marsalis

Going Through Hell with One of the World’s Greatest Jazz Orchestras

What could be more appropriate for this year than an album about a trip through hell?

When the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis recorded their live performance of alto saxophonist Sherman Irby’s Inferno in 2012, it’s unlikely that anyone in the world had any idea how much we would suffer eight years later at the hands of the lockdowners. Nor is it likely that the big band were even considering releasing this show as an album. But when it’s illegal to have your whole band in the same room, you do what any reasonable organization with a massive archive would do: you put out one great live record after another to keep your fans satisfied (and remind the rest of the world that a free society will someday flourish again in this city). This brings the orchestra’s releases this year to a grand total of four, and there may be more on the way.

Irby’s Dante-inspired suite features crowd favorite baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley playing the devil role, an assignment he obviously if rather subtly relishes when his turn comes.

A brief overture has slurry low brass, train-whistle high reeds and flickers of hi-de-ho swing, Temperley taking everybody way down into the depths. The first movement is titled House of Unbelievers, its brassy strut quickly giving way to suave, plush swing with good-natured solos from flute, soprano sax and trombone: it’s anything but hellish. But the atmosphere heats up in the simmmering second movement, Insatiable Hunger, a slow, slinky minor-key roadhouse theme of sorts: is that a piccolo descending from the clouds and hovering overhead like a drone? Shivery trombone offers a demonic response and kicks off the ensuing chatter.

Temperley’s allusively menacing solo follows that gremlin conversation as Beware the Wolf gets underway, echoed by smoky tenor sax, evilly slurry trombone and wicked, downwardly spiraling trumpet over a practically frantic swing. The album’s showstopper is The City of Dis, a slow, creepy, kaleidoscopically arranged Ravel Bolero-inspired number worthy of Gil Evans, packed with sly carnivalesque touches. It’s one of the most entertaining pieces of music released this year.

The Three-Headed Serpent is just about as colorful, a racewalking swing tune with bits of stern 19th century gospel, lowrider funk and solos from drums to tenor sax to piano popping up all over the place. The fierce trumpet duel at the center really energizes a crowd who up to this point have been pretty sedate.

The album’s epic final movement is The Great Deceiver, a synopsis of sorts that wraps up the brooding bolero theme and pretty much everything else, the devil himself slowly stalking in on the pulse of the bass as his minions chatter away. He slinks off amid an Ellingtonian lustre at the end. Irby is best known as a fearsome soloist, but these compositions are flat-out brilliant: let’s hope we get more like this out of him in the years to come. This is best-of-2020 material.

Prime Early Orchestral Duke Ellington From the Jazz at Lincoln Center Ochestra with Wynton Marsalis

What do you do when your big band can’t play any gigs because of the lockdown? You put out an album to keep your fans satisfied until you can get back onstage. More of the large ensembles who play big concert halls around the world should follow the example of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, who’ve just put out a dynamically rich, aptly epic recording of a 2017 live performance of Duke Ellington’s Black Brown and Beige, streaming at youtube.

The big difference between this and the 1943 original is the sonics. Stereo and digital clarity are part of the picture. Interestingly, while JALC’s Rose Auditorium is a pretty dry room – for a jazz venue, especially – you can hear some reverb on the brass. And Marsalis is an Ellingtonian to the core: his passion for this music translates to both the orchestra and the listener.

The dips, swells and conversational contrasts between winds and brass are vividly distinct throughout the suite’s first number, Work Song. As early symphonic Ellington, it’s fascinating to see how the composer takes a folksy 19th century-style melody, makes a plush swing tune and then classical music out of it, seamlessly And the bandleader’s wry phrasing with his mute in response to the daily drudgery is spot-on.

Eli Bishop’s wistfully soaring violin solo in Come Sunday is just as impactful, setting up the long, balmy closing tenor sax break: this is a wind-down day, and it’s sad to see the weekend go. Kicking off with Marsalis’ coy reveille, Light is a good example of how far Ellington would go in pushing a swing theme beyond the confines of a 78 RPM record.

Vaudevillian drums anchor the hazy, complex harmonies of West Indian Dance, until the rhythm section push the beat and it’s choo-choo-ch-boogie, yeah mon! Emancipation Celebration serves as a jubilant coda. Then Brianna Thomas joins the band to deliver a broodingly hushed take of Blues Theme Mauve; a stunningly haggard alto sax solo draws a burst of applause from the crowd.

In the series of themes that follow, jungly drums give way to a funereal interlude that finally engages the piano, then a comfortable walz and a triumphant return to swing. The long tenor sax solo at the center of a warmly nocturnal Sugar Hill Penthouse has nonchalantly impressive range. The orchestra bring the suite full circle, conversationally, trumpeter Chris Crenshaw putting the icing on the cake

World-Famous Big Band Celebrates Pantheonic Painters

Since prehistory, musicians have been inspired by visual art. But there’s never been a big band jazz album featuring works by multiple composers referencing paintings from across the decades. The new Jazz and Art record by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis – streaming at youtube – took almost a decade to create. New York’s most renowned big band premiered it live in 2010, playing to projections overhead. The vast stylistic range of the music mirrors the art that springboarded it, including works by Romare Bearden, Winslow Homer and Piet Mondrian.

The sheer fun that the composers here had writing for this mighty beast of an ensemble is visceral, and the orchestra reward those efforts lavishly. The album opens with a Stuart Davis-inspired triptych by Doug Wamble. The first segment, The Mellow Pad, is a moody, New Orleans-tinged cha-cha in the same vein as Tom Waits’ Down in the Hole, with spare, bluesy Vincent Gardner trombone at the center. Likewise, the second part is a paraphrase of When the Saints Come Marching In, with bright spotlights on Marcus Printup’s trumpet and Sherman Irby’s alto sax. The group take a pointed, almost tiptoeing swing through the ragtime-tinged conclusion, Dan Nimmer’s piano pushing it further into postbop.

Gardner contributes the epic Sam Gilliam shout-out Blue Twirl, developing slowly from Messiaenic birdsong-like chatter, to wry jesting, a silky clave and a brisk swing, bassist Carlos Henriquez signaling the changes. Marsalis, altoist Ted Nash and trombonist Elliot Mason punch in hard with solos.

Trombonist Chris Crenshaw gets the plum assignment of tackling Bearden’s iconic collage The Block with sweeping, jump blues-inspired swing, Nimmer pouncing, tenor saxophonist Victor Goines leading the group into a balmy Harlem evening. Coming full circle with a triumph at the end, it’s the album’s most vivid, memorable number.

Low brass and percussion build ominously looming ambience as trombonist Papo Vasquez’s salute to Wilfredo Lam, the Orisha Medley: Air, Earth, Fire, Water gets underway. Anchored by a steady Afro-Cuban groove, the composer hands his imposing solo off to Marsalis, who raises the roof, the whole crew joining the blaze.

Bill Frisell was an apt choice to pitch in a Winslow Homer-inspired diptych, an allusively folksy, bittersweet waltz and a boisterous jump blues, the latter of which is the most modernist number here. Nimmer’s elegant cascades and tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding’s enigmatic, airy work liven Andy Farber’s colorful, cinematic arrangements.

The lustrous introduction to trumpter Tim Armacost’s Mondrian tribute The Repose in All Things is a false alarm. It turns out to be a bright, bustling excursion, Irby buoyantly setting up trumpeter Ryan Kisor’s crescendo. The album winds up with Irby’s Twilight Sounds, for Norman Lewis, expanding joyously on a vaudevillian theme. If you like your jazz blazing, brassy and evoking decades of history, crank this record.

Purist, Soulful Guitar Polymath Jeremiah Lockwood Continues His Residency at Barbes

Because Jeremiah Lockwood is such a protean guitarist, you never know where he’s going to go. He can spiral through a long psychedelic break, take his time with a mysterious, haunting, chromatically-charged Middle Eastern melody, or jam out on a Malian desert rock vamp. He’s also a fantastic country blues player. The leader of the long-running, brilliantly psychedelic Sway Machinery is in the midst of a weekly residency this month at Barbes on Sundays at 5 PM – that’s right, five o’clock in the evening, pretty much on the nose. Which is perfect, because it’s a work night. He’s got a couple more shows to go – on the 19th, he’s with the absolutely brilliant and similarly protean Shoko Nagai on accordion, which ought to be a great opportunity to air out his repertoire of otherworldly, ancient cantorial themes. Then on the 26th he’ll be leading the “The Fraternal Order of the Society Blues,” where he’ll be joined by fellow axemen Ernesto Gomez from Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues and Ricky Gordon of the Wynton Marsalis Ensemble, playing a tribute to their mentor, the great Piedmont blues guitarist Carolina Slim.

Lockwood’s Barbes show last week was an intimate duo performance with singer Fay Victor. It was an all-blues set, the two sharing a warm camaraderie as they made their way through a set of both standards and obscurities. They’d trade off solos, Victor sometimes just singing vocalese, subtly building to some unexpectedly powerful peaks, Lockwood hanging out in a mysterious midrange on his old resonator guitar. And as much as the vibe was rustic and antique, they reinvented the material. They did Memphis Slim’s morbid Back to Mother Earth as the kind of delta blues that he probably heard as a kid and decided to make bitingly elegant piano music out of. They did the much same when they went into the Muddy Waters catalog. A little later, they did a Jimmy Reed number, and instead of Jimmy Reed-ing it, all slinky and sly and lowlit, they picked it up with an emphatic bounce. Lockwood is a maven of so many styles; if blues is your thing, the show on the 26th should be off the hook, and this Sunday’s show is also definitely worth checking out if you’re in the neighborhood in the early evening. And the Sway Machinery will be at Union Pool with edgy latin rockers El Imperio on August 9 at around 9.