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Live review: Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis

September 28, 2009 | 11:40 am


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