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Marsalis Scorches Symphony Hall

Taking Boston to ‘30s, ‘60s, and Back

By Jorge Padilla

staff writer

Wynton Marsalis

Symphony Hall

April 12, 8:00 p.m.

Last Friday night, The New York-based Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (LCJO), directed by Wynton Marsalis, blew the roof off Symphony Hall in a spectacular two hour performance. The band was on that night, as they took the Boston public from the Duke Ellington 1930s to the John Coltrane 1960s in two intense and electrifying sets.

The band, led by the ever-popular trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, played Symphony Hall as part of their most extensive twenty-four-show, cross-country United in Swing tour. The concert was dedicated to Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, and to the later works of such characters as Charles Mingus and the legendary John Coltrane. Each night of the tour, LCJO played a completely different set to recall and reiterate the beautiful music that spans the history of jazz. Needless to say, the Boston set the band chose to play was no less than extraordinary.

Marsalis, known for his hip, jazzy personality, was charismatic in greeting the audience and introducing the band members to the sound of a medium swing blues. The first tune LCJO played that night was the famous Duke Ellington Big Band standard, “Harlem Air Shaft.” The group couldn’t have picked a better piece to kick off the night. It wasted no time in setting up its groove -- a groove that grew groovier as the night progressed. The saxophone section was the first to stand out, filling horns with a huge, woody, raspy sound that was perfect for the tune. The gutsy trombone section was tight as a knot on all the pops Duke wrote, complimenting the melody in the saxes and trumpets. Then birthday boy (as Marsalis jokingly put it) Ryan Kisor improvised a storm on trumpet to add to the growing intensity of the tune. The crowd was going crazy at the end of the first song -- and the concert was just beginning.

Immediately after the swingy, medium-paced opener, the group really laid back on a Thelonious Monk chart. Only the most mature jazz musicians possess the ability to change moods so drastically. Wynton Marsalis took his amazing first solo of the night on this tune. He began with sparse ideas, but then picked up the pace a bit and swung with such ease that he sounded like a CD-quality recording. In fact, the band members were so precise and crystal clear that they, too, sounded recorded. Other soloists on the tune included the cool, easy-playing tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding, Jr., the fiery trombonist Ron Westray, and the Monk reincarnate Fredrick Sanders.

After the second tune ended, Marsalis took a few moments to talk about the program when he noticed quite a few latecomers. He told them, “Ah, don’t worry about being late, we’re still here, we’re not leaving ... we start right at eight and we’ll be here when you show up ... you know what’s happenin’.” After the laughs, Marsalis introduced a completely new jazz style with the Afro-Cuban “Havana Blues.” Not surprisingly, the group superbly executed the Latin style of jazz playing. The piece intensified over time, and each solo was greater than the last. Gardner laid down the groove in his solo, playing patterns to show how well acquainted he was with the style of music. His sound was very bluesy, his licks sounded like something Sonny Rollins would have played, and his ideas were well-structured and melodic.

The mood of the concert changed again with a move to the music of Ralph Burns. The composition, written for Woody Herman’s “First Herd,” consisted of a beautiful ballad and a medium swing. Marsalis soloed on the second part of the piece, gliding all over his horn like nobody’s business.

The first half concluded with what Marsalis called “the most American of all things -- the slow blues.” Most of the band members took a solo on this slow blues, each one carefully crafting his simple ideas with so much expression.

In the incredible second half, Marsalis and LCJO chose to perform an orchestral rendition of John Coltrane’s pivotal 1964 album, A Love Supreme. The group performed all four tracks: “Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm.” The band played in a manner that captured the essence of the album from the very beginning. The sound and expression LCJO conveyed throughout the second half were reminiscent of that on the Coltrane recording. It was obvious that LCJO had done their homework, as each member demonstrated his uncanny ability to replicate the spirit of A Love Supreme. The group empathy was superb as the music intensified to extremes. Most memorable were the solos of bassist Rodney Whitaker, pianist Fredrick Sanders, drummer Herlin Riley, and of course Wynton Marsalis.

All the musicians scattered onto the bandstand for the encore. They performed “Happy Birthday” with main soloist was Ryan Kisor. After Kisor, baritone saxophonists Joe Temperley took a few turns, as did Vincent Gardner. The night was concluded by Marsalis, a fitting end to a truly great concert.