There are five sterling minutes early into the “The Music of John Lewis,” a deeply satisfying new concert recording by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, in which guest artist Jon Batiste gives the host ensemble a break in order to seek the spirit of a gentle jazz giant on his own. What results is a sublime solo reading of “Django,” one of Lewis’ many signature tunes with the Modern Jazz Quartet from more than a half century ago. For the composer, it was an ode to the famed gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt and reflected an inherent sense of swing with the kind of reserved elegance only Lewis could summon. In Batiste’s version, the song becomes a more global travelog crisscrossing between its Euro-classical heritage and Americanized struts through New Orleans, a region Batiste and Jazz at Lincoln Center trumpeter and musical director Wynton Marsalis know well.
Marsalis and the orchestra, perhaps more than any other nationally recognized jazz performance institution, are scholars at presenting retrospective primer programs designed to enlighten new generations to the career works of jazz masters without making the music sound stuffy or overly academic. But they are really in their element when they veer off more obvious stylistic paths. Lewis and the quartet were hardly hermits. But with all of the group members long deceased, its sound now falls in danger of being forgotten. What a quietly glorious sound it was, too. Its music was the epitome of jazz cool and refinement with a novel instrumental design of piano, vibraphone bass and drums.
As usual, Marsalis and the orchestra don’t set out to recreate the music, especially in terms of arrangements. For instance, the slinky turns of clarinet by Victor Goines introducing the album’s opening quintet reading of “2 Degrees East, 3 Degrees West” suggests a blues variation on Gershwin (an inspiration that plays out far more literally later on “Delaunay’s Dilemma”) before guest guitarist Doug Wamble sets the blues in stone with a wiry, heavily atmospheric solo. Batiste then enters, beautifully channeling Lewis’ playful piano grace.
The orchestra’s gorgeous dynamics later set up an animated exchange between Batiste and Marsalis during “Piazza Navona” that leapfrogs between ensemble swing and more pastoral reprieves.
It should be noted that the performance from which “The Music of John Lewis” was taken was presented in January 2013, two-and-a-half years before Batiste’s career broke open with his nightly television residency as bandleader for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” This recording shows how complete an artist Batiste already was, by rescuing the repertoire of a stylist being edged closer to jazz oblivion and subsequently providing the music a new platform for a new generation. The results are sublime.