Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra play Santa Cruz this Monday.

Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra play Santa Cruz this Monday.

I know all of the complaints about Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center. Hell, I’ve made many of them myself. The organization is too conservative. It doesn’t reflect the dizzying stylistic diversity of the New York scene. It largely ignores the masters associated with the free jazz movement of the 1960s and later improvisers inspired by the avant garde legacy. There’s some truth in all of these charges, but every time I see Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra perform I offer silent thanks for the trumpeter and his extraordinary ensemble.

No mere collection of technically brilliant musicians, the 15-piece JLCO is a working band with a vast, road-tested repertoire encompassing nearly a century of jazz innovation, including many original pieces commissioned from orchestra members. An enviably busy itinerary has enabled the JLCO to attain an authority and cohesion unmatched by any jazz ensemble its size today. The orchestra can whisper and roar, swagger and leap, preach, shout, croon and above all, swing with indefatigable energy and precision.

While the JLCO often plays thematic shows exploring a specific concept, era or composer, the orchestra hits Northern California this week for a series of wide-open concerts, including Sunday at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco and Monday at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. The last time the band came through the area, I caught the performance at UC-Berkeley’s Zellerbach Auditorium, and the first tune made me a Marsalis believer all over again.

In addition to his bravura technique, vivid palette of half-valve effects and puckish sense of humor, Marsalis is a superlative showman, and he kicked off the set with his killer arrangement of Jackie McLean’s keening hard bop classic “Appointment in Ghana.” The late altoist introduced the searing tune on his 1960 Blue Note session Jackie’s Bag, and as McLean revisited it again and again over the years, the appointment seemed to gain momentum, turning into a torrid steeplechase through a maze of jagged chord changes. Marsalis arranged “Ghana” for a concert focusing on the legacy of Blue Note Records, and by slowing down the tempo he reveals McLean’s captivating melodic line while expanding the bright harmonies almost to the point of dissonance.

“I tried to bring out the flute aspect of African music, where the whole tone is implied in the melody,” says Marsalis, 49. “I used Jackie’s interlude two or three times to break up the swing and ended with that dramatic fadeout. Each time we arrange a tune we try to listen closely and figure out what’s in it. Each arranger has a different style. [Bassist] Carlos Henriquez has his way. [Saxophonist] Ted Nash has a whole other style. We have the luxury of having really good arrangers.”

About half the band members are distinguished recording artists in their own right, though only trumpeter Marcus Printup and saxophonists Nash and Sherman Irby have managed to regularly release their own albums since joining the orchestra. It’s a plum gig offering security, high visibility and creative challenges. Spots in the band don’t open up often, and when they do, the process of finding a replacement is more musicians’ grapevine than open audition.

“The style is so difficult to play and learn,” Marsalis says. “The level is so high and there’s so much competition. We know about the younger musicians and we have people sub. We get together and talk about who we’d like to see play, and we bring in somebody and see how they fit in the section, how they sound and if they like playing with us. You’re always working for your personal sound, so it’s not like a symphony orchestra. You can’t have a screen, because you’ll know who’s playing. We always wish there were more jobs for everybody. We play such a wide range of music, we don’t have a lot of people to choose from.”

Mellowed Marsalis
Marsalis likes to talk about jazz as an art form emblematic of America’s democratic system, but a big band doesn’t run on Robert’s Rules of Order. The JLCO reflects his vision of jazz as a cultural form inextricably grounded in the blues and swing, the propulsive rhythmic pulse that links the music to its social roots on the dance floor. While his ideological foes take issue with this blues essentialism, what they find most galling is that Marsalis occupies such a commanding perch that his views have predominated in the public sphere.

The thing about Marsalis is that he’s not trying to push anyone else offstage. He’s more than willing to defend his views, though he’s hardly the bombthrower he was in his 20s when he was denouncing Miles Davis’s electric music. His stance is the more the merrier, and if Jazz at Lincoln Center paves the way for other institutions, he’ll be the first to cheer. Asked about SFJAZZ’s recent groundbreaking for its $60 million building blocks from the opera, ballet and symphony, Marsalis sounded like he was ready to pick up a shovel, despite the fact that the organization has always taken a broader view of the jazz tradition.

“I love them and I love Randall,” Marsalis says, referring to SFJAZZ’s founder and executive director, Randall Kline. “I’m not concerned about distancing myself from other jazz organizations, like other organizations sometimes distance themselves from us. I love the education, the music that’s coming out of there. Jazz at Lincoln Center has nothing but support and love for them.”

Marsalis built the orchestra on the sturdy, gloriously rich foundation of Ellingtonia. Many of the original members had performed with the Ellington Orchestra, and while the senior core gave way after a few years to Marsalis’s peers (a messy process that led to some controversy), the band retains an essential link to its Dukeish roots in the person of 81-year-old Scottish baritone saxophone master Joe Temperley. He took over the Ellington bari chair in 1974 after the death of Harry Carney, who helped define the orchestra’s sound during his 45-year tenure. Marsalis features him on a luscious ballad at just about every JLCO performance.

“Joe loves the band and loves playing,” Marsalis says. “He’s so meticulous about what he does and has such respect and love for the music. He anchors the section with a certain authority, and he has a way that plays through chords. Joe’s Changes, we call it. The whole band has tremendous love and respect for him.”

Irby, soul-soaked altoist who got his start recording with gospel legend James Cleveland, was an early member of the JLCO during his first run with the band from 1995 to 1997. He rejoined about six years ago, drawn by the orchestra’s expanded repertoire and the ample opportunities for writing.

“One big thing was that the band was playing a lot of original music when I came back, not only Ellington and Basie,” Irby says. “Wynton offered opportunities for us to write, and that intrigued me. And the attitude of the band was different, younger and more flexible. Outside of having your own big band, this is the best experience I could have as far as writing is concerned.”

It’s a formula that continues to pay steep creative dividends for the JLCO. I won’t stop complaining about Marsalis, but you can bet I’ll also keep listening.

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis
Monday, June 20, 7:30pm
Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz
Tickets $26.25-$63 at or 831.420.5260.

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