You don't have to know jazz music to know you're in the presence of greatness when Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra take a stage.---
Not that Marsalis puts on any airs; if there's a more down-to-Earth legendary frontman out there, I'd like to see him. In fact, calling Marsalis a frontman isn't even accurate. He sits in the middle of the back row of the 15-man group, chatting and laughing throughout the show as other musicians take solos, picking up a microphone after each song to call out orchestra members to take a bow after delivering particularly scintillating performances. And when he delivers one of those fiery solos himself, he doesn't make a huge deal out of it, preferring to give his fellow musicians the spotlight.
Monday nights show packed Kingsbury Hall for an evening focused on a set of original Marsalis material called the Vitoria Suite, on which he uses the blues as a foundation for exploring the music of the Basque region of Spain and the blues and jazz of America.
What did that mean for us, the listeners? Simply two hours of incredible playing from everyone involved. The opening piece, "Inaki's Decision," moved easily from frantic blasts of trumpets, saxophones and trombones into a subtle breakdown of just bass, piano and drums. "Deep Blue (From the Foam)" featured the potent playing of Kenny Rampton, whose mother was in the house, inspiring Marsalis to talk about how "when your mama's in the house, you play with some extra soul." And, indeed, Rampton proved to be one of the aces of the night, repeatedly reeling off stinging solos with his instrument.
While all the musicians had a chance to shine, a few certainly stood out. Sax-men Sherman Irby and Ted Nash both had multiple memorable moments, as did standup bassist Carlos Henriquez, who contributed a song inspired by the band's trip to Cuba. Baby-faced Dan Nimmer, the 29-year-old pianist, held his own with the seasoned players on stage with him, and the crew's senior member, Joe Termperley, delivered a stirring, soulful rendition of Duke Ellington's "The Single Petal of a Rose" on his bass clarinet.
The show ended with Marsalis leading just a few members of the orchestra through an encore that featured the band leader in fine form. I'm sure the show had to please the hardcore jazzbos in the house, and it certainly served as an eduction for this neophyte.