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Live review: Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis


If mainstream jazz has what could be considered an ambassador in 2009, it's Wynton Marsalis.

A member of jazz royalty practically from the moment he could hold a horn, Marsalis rolled into the sprawling Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza on Saturday night with his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, a taut, 15-piece group he's directed since its inception in 1988. (The tour continues to the Orange County Performing Arts Center and Royce Hall later this week.)

While this conjures images of the trumpeter leading from a conductor's podium, Marsalis instead led his charges through brightly swinging arrangements while seated among the orchestra. Positioned in the back near versatile drummer Ali Jackson, the trumpeter was an authoritative but democratic figure as his group flowed through tradition-rich jazz numbers like a wave.

Touching on expert arrangements of classics, including Wayne Shorter's "Free for All" and a swinging take on "Old McDonald Had a Farm," each member of the orchestra was given ample space to shine, with the gifted Marsalis making his presence felt early with alternately soaring and understated solos during Jackie McLean's "Appointment in Ghana."

But this wasn't merely a showcase for the bandleader. Acknowledging that saxophonist Ted Nash's parents were in the audience, Marsalis used the second set to showcase the young composer with a run of arrangements that culminated with Nash's musician father, Dick, joining the band for an elegant trombone solo during the Lee Morgan bossa nova "Ceora."

Of course, as an outspoken advocate for jazz tradition, Marsalis has developed a reputation as someone who either saved the music from the artistic dilution of fusion and the avant-garde or stifled its creativity by declaring stylistic boundaries around the genre.

At one point, the trumpeter couldn't resist offering his own subtle defense of the ensemble's straightforward accessibility, saying: "We're playing this music for you people; if we wanted to play for ourselves, we could stay home."

Along with offering his laudably customer service-oriented approach, Marsalis also testified for jazz's history through funny personal stories about Art Blakey and Charlie Parker. Yet it was telling if not somewhat disconcerting that both stories finished with a smiling, head-shaking acknowledgment that Blakey's and Parker's gifts were something that would never be seen again, a sentiment that may be true but also hinted to jazz's ultimate concern of late -- that its most influential days could be behind it.

Still, the talent on display from Marsalis' orchestra was at times so powerful that such concerns couldn't linger.

Though much of the evening functioned as an expert and often-brilliant testimonial to jazz's tradition-rich charms, perhaps its most memorable moment occurred in an intimate and seemingly unexpected encore.

After the house lights had gone up and half of the audience had headed for the parking garage, Marsalis returned with a pared edition of the ensemble to trade raucous, conversational solos in a bluesy jam session. Even the beaming elder Nash returned for a solo.

Suddenly, the Brooks Brothers suits, philosophical ideals and glossy auditorium were washed away, leaving only the music -- warm, lively and eternal.

-- Chris Barton

Photo of Wynton Marsalis with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl last year by Stefano Paltera / For The Times

Comments () | Archives (7)

Not a fan at all. He's clearly technically proficient. But he is not a particularly talented jazz musician. He is a -- self-appointed -- jazz ambassador, but the truth is he's never recorded any jazz music of any moment. He played with Art Blakey, and then went straight to enormous fame, but that was based in large part of his classical chops. His supposed idol, Miles Davis, was not a fan. Marsalis has insufficient appreciation of a lot of great music outside of the orthodox jazz musicians (e.g., Duke Ellington and others too obviously great to ignore, but whom Marsalis would have had he been around at the time (I could see him complaining about Bird in the 40's -- "We're here to play music for you, not for us" -- indeed, but we don't all need to be fed comfort food, Wynton). What made Ellington great was that he produced NEW music, even though in retrospect it SEEMS traditional. Marsalis is content to treat jazz pieces as part of a canon, which to me is every bit as antithetical to its populist spirit as treating rock music as a canon that shouldn't evolve past some arbitrary date such as 1964 (I believe that's the date that Marsalis has professed was the height of jazz - baloney). This approach leads to lifeless music. Great music (classical, jazz, pop, rock, really anything, has to keep moving or it dies). I really hate Marsalis's pig-headed efforts to turn jazz into a museum piece. And sorry to say, but he is not a very good jazz musician. I believe he is most appreciated by jazz neophytes. (I'm not as much of a snob as I sound; some of my favorite jazz musicians are decidedly not esoteric or elitist; I just have never bought the (self-created) Marsalis hype.) Ironically, none of the true jazz masters ever had the gumption to attempt to define the boundaries of jazz (the true greats - Ellington, Parker, Young, Hodges, Davis, Coltrane, Monk, Gillespie, Coleman, Rollins, take your pick, were/are forever redefining the music on their own individual terms, free of dogma, and even if they had pointed tastes, they would never attempt to speak for an entire art form in such a confrontational way as Marsalis does). Marsalis is, to me, the most obnoxious, arrogant, overrated musician in the history of jazz. And bottom line - his improvisation is awful.

Dear Chris, I loved your article today. It was right on as far as us were concerned. My wife wanted me to stop yelling and clapping at the end but she was happy that I didn't stop when the boys came back out. I lived in NYC in the early 50's and yes I did own a Brooks brothers suit :>) . Thanks for taking me back. Ernie

I agree with Donald's statement: "Marsalis is, to me, the most obnoxious, arrogant, overrated musician in the history of jazz" and I'm glad that he posted it. Wynton Marsalis hasn't done anything new...and that's what jazz is all about: innovation, pushing forward. Not preserving what has already happened. Yes, we play jazz standards, but we interpret them with new, fresh angles. It shouldn't be the same all the time... Wynton doesn't excite me at all. In fact, I actively do not listen to his music because of this. Ken Burns and Wynton Marsalis are the top 2 to blame for the decline of jazz.

Chris, your review captured the spirit of this great concert that I was fortunate to attend. Loved the arrangements (yes, new and fresh) of "Itsy Bitsy Spider" and "Old MacDonald." The bizarre hatred posted here toward Wynton is clearly not expressed by jazz musicians or people who love the music. Those would no doubt appreciate Wynton's ambassadorship, his gathering and spotlighting of his fine bandmembers, and his wonderful improvised trumpet solos.

Stating that any individual could help produce a downfall in an entire musical genre is egregious. By definition, any musical form that evolves beyond its appeal to large masses will decline. It can't survive solely on the elitist pomposity of those who claim unique understanding. It has to actually resonate viscerally or it's nothing but musical masturbation. Marsalis is by no means the greatest jazzer, but neither is he a jazz pariah. And no one can remain a self appointed guardian of anything for over twenty years without collusion.

A. Smithson - I've been playing jazz for 24 years now, and I am quite, quite knowledgeable about the music. I like a large swath of subgenres, and appreciate nearly all of it, including the fusion that Wynton railed against in the 80s. My hatred (it's not really hatred, it's continued astonishment at undeserved fame) is not bizarre. He is wildly overrated. And he looks down on and dismisses artists that are far more talented than he is. And I assure you I am not alone. I know plenty of jazz musicians who feel the same way. Everyone's entitled to like whatever they like, but to me, he is the Britney Spears of jazz.

Donald...you have no idea what kind of a man Mr. Marsalis is!!! im a little late in writing this..but i've gotten to know the man only recently. He loves loves loves jazz...and he can be a self appointed jazz ambassador or whatever...but he is a simple man..you wont believe the amount of kids he sponsers, money is of no importance to him, it is only when it comes to helping others o.k!!! you dont know the man!! you have no right calling him obnoxious, arrogant or any other mean names...you dont know him!!! besides..if you've been playing jazz for 20something years..how come noones heard of you???!!!


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