The anticipation of a great performance was evident in Duke’s Page Auditorium lobby last week, and it was a testament to the power of jazz. The crowd was multi-generational–there were grandmothers and grandfathers, fathers, sons and daughters, and students from high school and college. A young patron told his father how much he’d been looking forward to hearing the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and especially their leader, Wynton Marsalis.
The 15 men in Brooks Brothers gray didn’t let that young man down, or the rest of the sold-out house.
As an emcee and bandleader, Marsalis has a dry style. He lets the band do the talking, as they did on “Vitoria Suite,” Movement III. Victor Goines on sax and Andre Hayward on trombone fired off beautiful solos. The band has power, but they also have control and finesse.
Sax soloists Joe Temperly and Goines and pianist Eric Lewis played “Rhapsody in Blue” with fresh enthusiasm. There’s something about the band’s energy and passion that says they’re having fun, and the audience was responding with nodding heads and tapping feet.
The orchestra celebrated Rocky Mount native John Coltrane’s birthday with “Song of the Underground Railroad.” Though each soloist presented a different personality in his solo, all kept within the context of the emotionally demanding piece. They closed the first half with “Bye Ya”.
A small ensemble opened the second half. “Free to Be” allowed Marsalis and saxophonist Wes “Warm Daddy” Anderson to stretch out, New Orleans-style. Little did we know that the title of this tune was setting up the theme for the second half of the concert.
Wynton introduced and explained the piece that was to take up the bulk of the rest of the program, “Evolution of the Groove.” He said that there were five movements to this original, which he penned along with Herlin Riley, the group’s animated drummer. Each movement had its own personality, Marsalis explained: one movement was swingin’, one had a mellow feel to it, there was a tambourine part in one, and some was in 7/4 time. Got that?
When they were done with the “Evolution of the Groove,” I saw grandfathers and kids clapping, juking, and stomping in 7/4 time. Who knew!? The packed house was having fun. Riley was the best tambourine player I’ve seen outside of a down home Baptist church.
For an encore, Marsalis called out Coltrane’s “Resolution,” and Goines blew the house down on sax, while Lewis cut loose and had way too much fun playing all around the bea –he was in the moment and enjoying himself while he teased, tickled and rolled around in the music.
There’s been some discussion about the nature of Marsalis’ attitude about jazz and where it’s going. Lewis addressed it simply. “Jazz is all about what you’re playing now,” he said. “Unless you’re playing in the moment and playing with all of your heart and soul, there isn’t a future.”
Marsalis showed his roots when I shared with him that I had a tape of his group’s performance a few years ago in Durham. “Keep it,” he said. “Now if you have some tapes of Pops (Louis Armstrong), send me those!”