Jazz review: Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl
Though by nature jazz is an improvisational thing that's seldom heard the same way twice, there was a feeling of knowing what to expect heading into Wednesday night's show at the Hollywood Bowl with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Led with a fierce dedication by trumpeter and former "Young Lion" Wynton Marsalis, the Lincoln Center jazz orchestra is a sort of roving, 15-headed family of finely tuned ambassadors dedicated to advancing the cause of jazz around the world. This, of course, is hardly a bad thing.
Though Marsalis has been a controversial figure in outspoken efforts to define what jazz was and wasn't, those internecine struggles seem an afterthought in 2011. Erecting borders between genres seems almost quaint among most listeners in the iTunes era, and nodding toward pop, world and electronic influences is practically required among today's most celebrated artists in jazz and elsewhere.
An example of such hybridization came with opener Hugh Masekela, who has built a long career out of melding jazz with sounds from his native South Africa along with touches of pop and funk. Though the beginning of his set breezily flirted with smooth jazz in a manner well-suited to scoring the Bowl's late arrivers, Masekela and his band eventually showed a kinetic edge true to his past collaborations with Fela Kuti and "Graceland"-era Paul Simon.
Opening with Masekela's grim narration describing the terrors of conscripted African workers riding by rail into mineral mines, "Stimela" took the night to a surprisingly dark, atmospheric place punctuated by Masekela's raspy sound effects. The mood didn't stay down long, however, as "Lady" rose into driving Afropop atop Randal Skipper's funky keyboard, and the 1968 hit "Grazing in the Grass" ended things on a summery note with its signature stuttering piano and Masekela's weaving flugelhorn.
Forming a bridge of sorts from Masekela's set with Jackie McLean's "Appointment in Ghana," the first half of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra's set held to its mission of spreading the gospel of jazz tradition. The insistent pulse of Jelly Roll Morton's "New Orleans Bump" spotlighted the Crescent City, and Chris Crenshaw's smooth vocal led the bluesy "I Left My Baby (Standing in the Back Door Crying)," which was punctuated by a bawdily muted solo from fellow trombonist Vincent Gardner.
In an arrangement by saxophonist Ted Nash, the orchestra also showcased a deft hand with originals in a selection from 2010's "Portrait of Seven Shades." It was an intricately cinematic turn that hinted toward the orchestra's classical-leaning "Swing Symphony" from earlier this year, and it was disappointing that the sprawling, Spanish-informed release "Vitoria Suite" from last year wasn't also given a moment to showcase the group's versatility.
Instead, the second half of the set was dedicated to the late James Moody, which is certainly tough to complain about. With the powerhouse Joe Lovano joining the band on saxophone, the orchestra offered another history lesson with Moody's brassy debut "Emanon" and the lilting "Moody's Mood for Love," a heartfelt dedication to the saxophonist's widow (sitting in a terrace box) highlighted by rapid-fire vocal turns from Gardner and, amusingly, Crenshaw as his voice brushed against the top of his range.
After "Slow Hot Wind" led the orchestra into a swaggering sort of funk well-suited for a '70s film score, Marsalis led the band back into taut, hard-bop swing with Dizzy Gillespie's "Things to Come." With the orchestra firing behind him at a pace that was frantic but never out of control, Lovano bent his body ever deeper into a twisting, accelerating solo. It was a moment firmly grounded in the past but very much alive.
-- Chris Barton
Photo: Top, Wynton Marsalis, upper left, onstage at the Hollywood Bowl with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Wednesday night. Below: Hugh Masekela. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times