JAZZ AT LINCOLN CENTER ORCHESTRA
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
When you’re used to the standard orchestral fabric on offer at 99% of MSO concerts, it takes you a while to adjust to the rare sound of an introduced ensemble that collaborates with those regular instrumentalists you know pretty well. With the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, the adjustment process passed very quickly, thanks to sensible programming,
To open, Marsalis and his 14 colleagues eased us in with three Duke Ellington pieces which genre of the art I take to be part of the Lincoln Orchestra’s artistic rationale. After a rousing reception from a full house, the famous trumpeter led a version of Braggin’ and Brass which involved a bright solo that might have come from Marsalis himself; confusingly, he mentioned another trumpet player during the applause and I failed to catch the name. But there are two trumpet solos in this piece, so he might have played one and Ryan Kisor, Kenny Tampton or Marcus Printup could have taken the other.
This talking across the music has always struck me as a persistent flaw in nearly every jazz event I’ve been to. The custom is for the listeners to applaud after each solo spot, during which outbreak the players either mark time or the next soloist immediately leads off. Fine, but then to try to shout names through the more formidable acclaim that comes at a piece’s end taxes the clarity of utterance in most of us. In fact, it took me some research to work out two of the three Ellington titles, let alone who was at work in the back-blocks of the group.
For the rest of the night, most of the attention focused on the five sax/clarinet/flute players who sat in a line along the front of the stage, trumpets and trombones situated directly behind this phalanx with Dan Nimmer’s piano prominent on the left until the night’s second half. Carlos Henriquez’s bass was also visible and audible up to interval; I looked but couldn’t see him participate in the long symphony. Brother and drummer Jason Marsalis fleshed out the rhythm section with the usual not-afraid-to-come-forward character of a man in control of a drum-kit battery, making for a dominant line of textures across the evening.
If patrons had paid to hear Marsalis in multiple solo spots, they were disappointed. He may have been leading his group but it was done, as by many sage generals, from the rear. Following the group exhilaration of 1938 with Marsalis possibly giving us the main high-flying solo (from my seat, nothing of the second and third rows of musicians could be seen), the environment changed abruptly to the 1966 Far East Suite from which the JLCO played the last two tracks from the initial recording: Amad and Ad Lib on Nippon, the first notable for a fluent trombone solo – after all the initial Oriental scene-setting – from Vincent Gardner; its successor featured tenor sax player Victor Goines playing a volatile clarinet line.
While you could wonder at the creative versatility shown during the solos that peppered this opening bracket, the effect was less brisk than you encounter on Ellington’s own performances which are models of crackling ensemble and, in the suite selections, less self-conscious, especially the pentatonic suggestions of Amad in which work Ellington himself is a very prominent force. Nimmer, Henriquez and Jason Marsalis gave a competent setting-up of the Ad Lib on Nippon material but somewhere along the way I missed out on Ellington’s original substantial second solo.
Some MSO brass, percussion and clarinet Philip Arkinstall glided onstage for the Bernstein Prelude, Fugue and Riffs concoction that shows what a brilliant, gifted musician can do with conventions and still sound individualistic. Arkinstall had a fair while to wait before the third – and most interesting – movement but he generated a crisply etched line that held its own against a solid brass onslaught in the latter stages of the score. If anything, the airing of this piece brought to mind the clever combination of craft and bloody-mindedness you can hear in Cool from West Side Story; Bernstein’s fugue of eight years previous is a remarkable harbinger. Most of the players coped with the composer’s rhythmic games, although one of the sax players – probably Paul Nedzela on baritone – teetered on the brink of falling off the beat in one of the fugue’s more fraught segments.
After the break, Nicholas Buc, who had directed the Bernstein score, again took control of Marsalis’ Symphony No. 4, The Jungle. This is a substantial score but at the same time one that flattens your interest simply from its grandiloquence. The composer alternates his movements deftly enough, as well as pulling both orchestra and band into and out of focus with a keen eye on audience interest levels. Yet, in spite of the multi-faceted interlacing of colour and shadings, the impact is tiring – partly, I feel, for an insistence on motifs rather than full-blown melodies in the action-packed strophes of the fast movements.
Marsalis memorialises New York in this work; it isn’t really a transferable piece that takes in a city like London or Berlin (or Melbourne) as its vocabulary is linked to what we outsiders know (and think we know) is the New York experience. This symphony opens with a wide-ranging city-scape, loaded with gestures and the kind of expansiveness that could have been written by a Gershwin with a taste for dissonance. A succeeding scherzo – The Big Show – is even more reminiscent of Gershwin and 1930 sophisticated jazz tropes, somehow taking in a cakewalk and a blues. A clean-textured slow movement (with reservations) follows in Lost in Sight (Post-Pastoral),featuring lush string fabric set alongside bluesy interludes from the JLCO group.
La Esquina returns to more strident territory and a more consistently optimistic scenario representing that major Latin element in this Big City, best exemplified here in a kind of habanera-rhythm ramble. Us continues the amiability at its start but its memorable feature on this night came in a soaring fast trumpet solo (Marsalis?) in its central pages. To end, Marsalis produced a punchy syncopated march which boiled down into a garden-variety swing band sound before fading to black.
In fact, this last part of the whole work posed some interesting questions. The final movement is called Struggle in the Digital Market and Marsalis seems to be as ambivalent about this stage of our development as most of us are. The progress of civilization is unarguable but who is in control of it? At the end, he leaves us with an extended passage of sputterings as the uncertainty grows, the forward motion falters and the machine fails of its power. For some reason, I was reminded of Duke Ellington with whose work this night began; in particular, his music for Otto Preminger’s 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder which features, at the end, an impossibly high trumpet sending out a kind of erratic Morse code – ditto The Jungle.
But fragments that linger in the memory aren’t enough to justify the large chasms of music-making from which nothing remains. What this work needed was a censor, some musician who could show the composer where he was either repeating material that wasn’t contributing to the symphony’s progress (or was significantly impeding it), or where a delight in constructing large sonorous edifices had become an end in itself and the individual movements’ aims had detoured into flamboyant gestures.
For all that, the Hamer Hall audience gave clear signs of having relished the whole experience, applauding each movement and greeting its conclusion with obvious endorsement. Despite my reservations, the enterprise realised many expectations. Anyone who regards this fusion of jazz and serious music as dated, just a throwback to a time when such a musical cross-breeding produced masterpieces, would have to re-think his or her stance, even if this modern-day product does for me what An American in Paris, Variants on a Theme of Thelonious Monk and On The Town don’t do – wears out its welcome.