By Marc Lee
Who better to pay tribute to jazz’s most prolific creator than its savior?
Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra celebrated Duke Ellington’s upcoming 100th birthday Monday evening with an almost lazy sophistication and a good shot of excitement.
During his 50-year career, the Duke recorded over 1,300 songs – including pop hits, suites and movie scores – on more than 800 recordings. How to shovel the power of all this music into one evening at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center hardly seems like a task somebody would volunteer to do. But Mr. Marsalis seemed more than eager.
His laid-back Southern charm made him seem like a favorite uncle as he explained the stories behind the songs – when Billy Strayhorn was ready to join the band in New York, Duke told him to take the A train – or imparted a bit of possibly boring technical knowledge – the funeral march in Harlem Suite is a masterful example of counterpoint. And he complained jokingly in his New Orleans drawl that the Meyerson was a fine facility but there were no televisions, so he couldn’t watch the basketball game.
The trumpeter boiled down the Duke to his essence by mixing revered standards such as “C Jam Blues” and “Cottontail” with the composer’s later and lesser-known works such as “Paris Stairs” and excerpts from The Far East Suite .
Whether it was a straight swing tune or something more complex, the band played with a polished sophistication that isn’t often seen. Swingers like “Take the A Train” stuck sharply in the brain, especially with solos such as trumpeter Marcus Printup’s languid turn, full of shimmering eighth notes and muted wahs.
Jungle tunes such as “The Shepherd,” which Duke wrote for the Rev. John Gensel and his church in Harlem, showed how effective he was at incorporating early jazz’s gimmicky sounds – swallowed notes, hard trills, deep scoops and kitty-cat mews – into something cohesive and beautiful. Mr. Marsalis’ gospel-influenced a cappella solo at the end left the audience gasping for breath before it exploded into applause.
A Billy Strayhorn excerpt from The Far East Suite gave saxophonist Wess “Warmdaddy” Anderson the spotlight. The piece is one of the few that leaves the melody entirely up to one player, and Mr. Anderson played the slow, bluesy tune with golden, flowing lines. At moments like this, Mr. Marsalis played host as Ellington played it, as a member of the band. Mr. Marsalis made his pronouncements and announcements from the back row, in line with the rest of the trumpets.
He was so at ease with himself, the band and the charts that he made a music that most consider to be long-dead come brilliantly, vibrantly alive.