"Y'all came up here to swing," Wynton Marsalis remarked as the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra prepared to dig into the second of two sublime sets for the Alltech Festival last night at the Singletary Center for the Arts. "And it makes us feel good, good, good."
The audience-artist attitude seemed mutual. The 1,300-strong audience — a near-sellout for the Singletary's Concert Hall — ate up every groove the trumpeter and the 15-member ensemble dished out, providing ovations not only at the end of both sets but at their onsets.
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The program shifted away from the orchestra's Duke Ellington-inspired comfort zone to focus heavily on the stellar bop established during the golden age of Blue Note Records. The repertoire didn't attempt to cover the full breadth of the label's pioneering music, but it celebrated stellar works cut by saxophonists Jackie McLean, Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter, trumpeter Lee Morgan and woefully underrated pianist Sonny Clark between 1957 and 1965. Two new Marsalis compositions and a 1960 piece cut by John Coltrane on Atlantic (For Sonny) completed the program. A Marsalis arrangement of Bud Powell's treacherous Un Poco Loco, bookended by a fierce solo from fellow trumpeter Marcus Printup and a Latin-savvy excursion by drummer Ali Jackson, was served for an encore.
This was a refreshing choice of compositions for Marsalis and company, whose devotion to the seminal music of Ellington and other founding jazz fathers has been devout almost to a fault over the years. Here, the orchestra's execution was no less elegant and its sense of swing no less tasteful as they hit the Blue Note notes. Similarly, the colors it unlocked in terms of arrangements and instrumentation were extraordinary.
Marsalis set the pace with a patiently paced solo on the show-opening treatment of McLean's Appointment in Ghana. But despite his profile as perhaps the most recognized jazz celebrity of his generation, this was no one-man show. The blues bubbled heartily under the saxophone entries of Walter Blanding during the tune, while the sweet but brief baritone sax of Joe Temperley beautifully sustained Clark's Cool Struttin'.
There also were wonderful ensemble passages, including the trio of flutes that briefly initiated Ghana, the sleek bossa nova suggestions that ran thru the Morgan ballad Ceora and Marsalis' own Continuous, and the sunny dialogue between Erica Von Kleist's flute and Jackson's drum-rim chatter on Like Sonny.
There was no undo bravado here and no instrumental grandstanding. This ensemble cheerfully used the same intimacy and intuition the Blue Note recordings emphasized in combo settings decades ago within a big-band setting. It was jazz teamwork at its most elemental and invigorating.
A footnote: During introductory remarks to the concert, Chester Grundy, the guiding force for 28 years of the Spotlight Jazz Series before the University of Kentucky allowed it to evaporate, said he hoped that hosting Marsalis (who played Spotlight Jazz several times) would signal a rebirth of the series. He urged patrons to send "notes, e-mails and candygrams" to help Spotlight Jazz back on its feet.
Marsalis concurred at the beginning of the concert's second set. "When times get hard," he said, "we're going to need a whole lot of the stuff that reminds us of who we are."