Trumpeter, bandleader and composer Wynton Marsalis is no longer the youthful lighting rod who electrified jazz audiences as a 19-year-old soloist with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. Nor is he the same fiery youngster who subsequently feuded with jazz critics — and even icons like Miles Davis — over whether fusion and avant-garde represented progress or perversion in improvisational circles. (Marsalis held it was the latter.) Though he still possesses the bright, shimmering sound, masterful control and extensive range that thrilled audiences who flocked to his early releases, Marsalis, now 48, has become more circumspect.
These days, Marsalis spends much of his time functioning as artistic director of the superb Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLC). The 15-member ensemble, which features top soloists and performs a host of dates across the country, has just released its first CD in four years and embarked on a tour that comes to Nashville this week. Portraits in Seven Shades, a series of compositions written by saxophonist and JLC member Ted Nash, pays homage to distinguished painters through vivid, sizzling pieces that accent both individual players and disciplined unison playing.
Whether it's the midtempo, swelling passages of "Monet," the brisk Latin rhythms that surge through "Dali," the Count Basie-tinged swing structure of "Matisse" or the somber, edgy trombone lines underlying the main arrangement on "Picasso," the disc shows off the JLC's strengths: the mastery of every jazz idiom from New Orleans to soul jazz, the influence of orchestral masters like Duke Ellington and Basie, and Marsalis' impact as conductor and impresario. The disc is also spiced by the presence of violinist Nathalie Bonin, trombonist and longtime Marsalis associate Wycliffe Gordon and accordionist Bill Schimmel, each of whom add special punch to key compositions.
With a roster that includes trumpeters Sean Jones, Ryan Kisor and Marcus Printup, trombonists Vincent Gardner and Chris Crenshaw, saxophonists Sherman Irby, Nash, Walter Blanding Jr., Victor Goines and Joe Temperley, plus a rhythm section of pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Carlos Henriquez and drummer Ali Jackson, the JLC epitomize the best elements of jazz repertory (discipline, authoritative playing and rhythmic ferocity) while avoiding the worst (idiomatic predictability, instrumental stiffness).
As impressive as it is, the JLC Orchestra is just part of the impressive Jazz at Lincoln Center operation. Housed since 2004 in a gorgeous multimedia center on 60th and Broadway in New York, Jazz at Lincoln Center blends educational programs, concerts, film screenings, lectures and numerous other events into an ambitious year-round jazz advocacy exercise. Artistic director Marsalis can be heard on weekends hosting a syndicated radio show The Swing Set on Sirius XM radio and also on the Jazz at Lincoln Center radio show, heard on over 200 radio stations nationwide, including Fisk University's WFSK-88.1FM. (The program even managed to survive the death of longtime host Ed Bradley in 2006.)
As far as his own music is concerned, Marsalis hasn't abandoned his belief that swing and the blues are at the core of jazz, and even though he experimented with rap on a Blue Note CD a few years ago, he probably won't be cutting any collaborations with Jay-Z or Snoop Dogg any time soon. But he's expanded his horizons and activities enough to make a fine album of duets with Willie Nelson, a project that was so successful it spurred the production of an additional DVD. And he's working on the soundtrack for David Simon's new HBO series Treme, which debuts in April. He's been a jazz celebrity long enough that he isn't concerned with awards or critical notices: Through his work supervising the JLC Orchestra and the entities that comprise Jazz at Lincoln Center — and, certainly, his performances — Marsalis remains a fierce advocate for the music he loves, and it's a role that, at this point in his storied career, suits him well.
Off to hibernate for the winter
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