Guest blogger Walton Muyumba is a University of North Texas professor who teaches classes on blues, jazz and American literature. He is the author of The Shadow and the Act: Black Intellectual Practice, Jazz Improvisation and Philosophical Pragmatism.
Displaying the roots and logic for the band’s presence, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra opened its Friday evening show with a set of Basie Orchestra standards. As Wynton Marsalis intimated they would, the band perpetrated the act of swinging through numbers, with the horn sections blowing muscularly over the rhythm unit and lead trumpeter Ryan Kisor hitting home run high notes. Marsalis divided the set between “Old” and “New” testament Basie, including numbers like“Sleep Walker’s Serenade” and “Mutt and Jeff.”
On “Magic,” reedman Sherman Irby offered an inspired, hiccupping alto sax solo that sounded as if he were humming/scat singing through the horn. In taut “call and response” sections, each of the band’s units – trumpets, trombones, reeds and rhythm – urged Irby through the chord changes and gave him buckets of pointed riffs for him to hammer into his ragged, rousing improvisation.
JLCO closed the first half with “Seventh Avenue Express,” a tune arranged for rapid-fire, round robin blues soloing. Marsalis has the unenviable job of choosing pieces and building sets that will allow all his top-shelf band mates the chance to solo. On “Seventh Avenue Express,” Walter Blanding (tenor sax), Sean Jones (trumpet) and Eliot Mason (trombone) each wore the conductor’s hat, urging the group down more intriguing routes with each turn. Ali Jackson kept the song’s engine boiling hot, thumping the bass-pedal and snapping the toms and snare skins with high-speed, locomotive hands.
On Friday and Saturday nights, the show’s second sets were devoted to Portrait in Seven Shades Ted Nash’s musical essay on swing, modern visual art and improvisation. Nash, a reedman and flutist, lead the band through seven intricate, often elegant, movements reflecting the wonders of Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Vincent Van Gogh, Marc Chagall and Jackson Pollack.
From movement to movement, an interesting contingency emerged in my listening: the band was playing avant-garde music. During the movements for Picasso, Dali and Pollock, I realized that Basie’s music was context-establishing, preparing the audience for Nash’s composed, acute integration of swing time with bebop changes, Gil Evans-type coloring, hard and harmon muted, Ornette Coleman-like harmonics (or harmolodics), and group play as imagined by both Charles Mingus and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
Nash chopped and screwed flamenco and cubism together in “Picasso,” a swinging tune in 4/4 time, based on four-part chords, harmonies and melodic runs. Marsalis’ masterful solo, geometric segmented and angled sharply against the composition, was all blues and bullfighting.
“Dali,” signed in 13/8 time, featured Victor Goins setting the melody, Vincent Gardner bellowing on trombone, Marcus Printup and Nash in duet, melting time with blazing, whining, wheezing notes, and Jackson alarm-tocking an assortment of cowbells. Against Carlos Henriquez’s bass plucking, Dan Nimmer’s cycle of keyboard runs and Jackson’s bass-drum bombs, the band ended the song stomping feet, clapping hands in differing rhythmic pattern, and spinning the audience’s heads.
On Friday evening, the show closed with “Pollock,” Nash’s most abstract, outsider movement. The piece shifted between bright, darting tonalities and moody, mid-century modernism. The arrangement was set for Kisor and the rhythm section to intermittently dive out of the piece into a tuneful, swinging expression of Clifford Brown/Max Roach bebopisms. But Irby punctuated these exits, soloing with purposeful wildness across the band’s rhythmically placed, sonic gestures, razor lining the musical canvas, bleeding it to give it life.
Marsalis is a generous director; he must be with all the talent in his troupe. Besides calling numbers for individual soloists, Marsalis also creates set lists around charts written by the composers in the group. For instance, Saturday’s show opened with Chris Chrenshaw’s lovely, complex piece, “The Block,” his reflection on the paintings of Romare Bearden. The jazz was of the highest order; the musicians soloed with soul, intelligence and a general sense of energy and fun.
As I was turning through my notes on the concerts, I was struck by a stupendous sentence in Preston Jones’ recent profile of Ornette Coleman on dfw.com:
“[Coleman] has not performed in Fort Worth since the 1983 grand opening of now-shuttered jazz club Caravan of Dreams. Coleman says he would love to return and perform in his hometown, but there is nothing scheduled.”
I hope someone with real power in the North Texas arts communities read this profile and made some calls to arrange a date for Coleman’s return to the area, thus blessing him with the birthday gift of return and us with the gift of certified musical genius. Coleman is 80 years old, why wait until he is dead to honor him?