A sustained air of anticipation filled Overture Hall on Saturday night where, mere feet from the stage, jazz legend Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (JLCO) tuned and tested an array of iconic orchestral elements. Roughly 2,000 attendees erupted into applause as the lights dimmed to greet the opening act: the Badger High School Jazz Ensemble, based out of Lake Geneva. The group performed two brief renditions of the big band jazz style, featuring solos from the bells of trumpets, saxophones and gentle touches of the piano. The group holds a boastful record of three trips to New York City, where the Essentially Ellington jazz competition selects 15 bands from a national pool to perform. Matching the tenacity of the ensemble, the crowd followed in traditional jazz concert fashion, tossing a flurry of hollers, whoops and cheers to the end of each solo. The brief, 20-minute opening act demanded the adoration of jazz patrons in the hall that night, and they earned it.
The five-minute turnaround between acts was sufficient in rendering the audience restless as, moments later, the JLCO and Mr. Marsalis himself took to the stage with little grandeur or extravagance needed, enveloped in a deafening coat of applause; after all, their reputation precedes them. Marsalis, a nine-time Grammy award-winning artist and Pulitzer recipient, did not take a frontman position at the center of some spotlight. Rather, he placed himself on the high bandstand beside the accompanying brass section. The renowned composer, performer and conductor has been remarkably active in the jazz scene since the 1980s, attending Juilliard and subsequently joining the incomparable Jazz Messengers led by Art Blakey. In the years to come, he would play alongside fathers of contemporary jazz, including Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter. He would go on to establish a jazz program at Juilliard’s Lincoln Center, write five books and earn the George Foster Peabody award.
The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra he tours with manages to effortlessly meet Marsalis’ threshold of talent. If not for their masterful fluency in advanced jazz improvisation theory, the woodwind section is comprised solely of multi-instrumentalists capable of approaching varying jazz styles through use of alto, tenor, baritone and soprano saxophones, as well as the flute, clarinet, bass clarinet and tuba. The 15-man ensemble performs with a powerful vigor and frightening meticulosity; each member a real-time, improvising cog in a well-oiled machine. Where one would expect a cacophony of jumbled sound, there is a surprising fluidity in which the group utilizes the music itself to queue the next soloist in.
The concert’s repertoire was slightly different than the conventional concert. Instead of featuring music from Marsalis’ compositions or covers of typical standards, the entirety of Saturday’s show consisted of pieces personally arranged by varying members of the ensemble; music ranged from the ragtime stomp of Jelly Roll Morton, to the cool, clean sounds of Duke Ellington, to the hard bebop of Sonny Rollins. These arrangements were constructed with tenacious efforts from the members. For example, bassist Carlos Henriquez injected flavors of Caribbean-flared Latin jazz to Duke Ellington’s The Far East Suite, whereas trombonist Chris Crenshaw’s rendition of Rollins’ Freedom Suite interjected a bold and boisterous brass section to back up the rhythmic and domineering percussion.
Between the short set of songs, Marsalis offered insight into the background, inflections and mindsets of each piece. The occasional anecdote in his travels with Rollins or joke toward Milwaukee-based pianist Dan Nimmer’s reticent soloing style breathed an additional tier of levity to the night within a crowd that was already active, engaged and entertained by the ensemble’s stunning form. By the time the concert ended, Marsalis and company were greeted with a standing ovation and affectionate cheers. In response, drummer Marion Felder, saxophonist Walter Blanding, Henriquez and Marsalis remained onstage, topping the performance off with a lighthearted, cool jazz depiction of another Ellington piece. The horns faded out as they walked off stage-left, the rhythm queueing into a comfortable tacet. To brand the performance a success would be an understatement, as Marsalis and the JLCO have performed enough to shave the art of jazz down to a science of soul and emotion rather than notated accuracy and rigidity. With the audience still cheering and applauding, the house lights emerged and the main act’s formidable sounds coursed its way through the thousands of tapping feet, snapping fingers and humming mouths that once again dispersed into the muggy, Madison evening.