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Wynton Marsalis

Troy, NY
October 11, 2008

by Tom Pierce

One would be hard pressed to decide which was more striking - the extraordinary design of RPI's new Empac Center or the outstanding performance of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis.

It would be best to leave to architectural experts a detailed, comprehensive description of the various venues of this unique facility; but following are a few highlights of the 1,200 seat concert hall:
- Naturally beautiful wood and leather decor
- Comfortable seats with individual auto ventilation based on body heat
- Clean, rectangular design with excellent sightlines throughout
- Unsurpassed acoustics with mics and speakers hung from the ceiling

The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (LCJO) was formed in 1988 and its Director since 1991, trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis, is arguably the most famous living Jazz instrumentalist. The band is world renowned through its hundreds of versatile performances worldwide and on CD's. On Saturday evening it consisted of 15 musicians who were highly skilled as ensemble players and effective soloists within their tighter time constraints of a big band - Wynton Marsalis, leader and lead trumpet, Kenny Rampton, Ryan Kisor, Marcus Printup, trumpets; Vincent Gardner, Chris Crenshaw, Elliot Mason, trombones; Joe Temperley, Sherman Irby, Erica von Kleist, Walter Blanding, Jr., Victor Goines, reeds; Dan Nimmer, piano; Carlos Henriquez, bass; Ali Jackson, drums, and special guest conga player, Yacub Addy from Ghana.

This reviewer was particularly impressed with Mr Marsalis' interesting programming choices and also his organized ability to feature as soloists, virtually all of the outstanding players in the band. He defied conventional wisdom by opening with a ballad, played with Ellington-like precision. It was actually the last composition of the extraordinary Saxophonist/Trumpeter, composer Benny Carter (often referred to as “the King”), written in 2000 for the LCJO to cap an unparalleled composing career that began in 1923. Later in the concert, a beautiful ballad was also chosen from another remarkable legend, Duke Ellington. This was his elegantly constructed “A Single Petal of a Rose”, from his 1959 “Queens Suite”. This number was performed as a solo showcase on bass clarinet, for magnificent 79 year old Joe Temperley, with only subtle piano accompaniment. His incredibly warm and moving rendition evoked the memory of Ellington's great baritone sax player, Harry Carney. This intimate duet number was ironically (in an evening of formidable big band material), the most loudly applauded selection of the evening.

In addition to these two ballads and three of his own sophisticated compositions, Marsalis chose four stimulating songs by progressive artists from the 1960's. It was particularly interesting to hear the dynamic big band arrangements written by various LCJO members, contrasted with the original small group approach to these compositions. “Like Sonny” was John Coltrane's 1960 “Coltrane Jazz” tribute on Atlantic to the great Sonny Rollins, with an intriguing eastern flavor, simulated very effectively with the stylish flute work of Sherman Irby and Erica von Kleist. Saxophonist Joe Henderson's exciting “Inner Urge” was the title track of a classic 1964 Blue Note release. Victor Goines' tenor solo brought a pleasant smile to those of us there who recall Henderson's prodigious technique and imagination. The title track of unheralded (but highly valuable contributor to dozens of fine Blue Note LP's) pianist Sonny Clark's 1958 “Cool Struttin'” was an invigorating, toe-tapping blues inclusion. But for this reviewer, trumpeter Kenny Durham's majestically exotic 1964“Trompeta Toccata”, with an incisive solo by Ryan Kisor, was the most personally meaningful. I had earlier this year placed it at the top of the list of a dozen CD recommendations to my local Guilderland library, which they were fortunately able to obtain.

After these nine marvelous selections, a sustained standing ovation led to a much-appreciated encore, which consisted of an extended medley. This was executed by a quintet of Wynton, the rhythm section plus Yacub Addy and tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding Jr, who recalled for some, like passionate tenor sax devotee Mike Lategano, the supremely talented Paul Gonsalves of the legendary Ellington reed section. The encore was performed with a very relaxed, “after-hours” feel - an appropriate ending to a wonderful evening. RPI and the Empac Center are to be highly congratulated for presenting such outstanding programming, gratis to the music community.

The LCJO reminds one of Duke Ellington's orchestra - not necessarily in the compositions, style, and talent level, but other significant aspects:
- the classy, urbane wit and talent of the two orchestra leaders
- the smooth, well-controlled precision of their various sections
- the often understated, but still intense and swinging delivery
- the respect their dress & comportment showed for the audience
All this of course comes as no surprise, given Marsalis' well known strong championing the legacy of those musical giants that the jazz tradition is based on - especially Ellington, whose unparalleled body of work the LCJO has presented in a number of recordings and many live performances.

Tom Pierce has had a burning passion for Jazz for over 45 years, initiated and fueled by seeing live in New York City, starting in the early 1960's, virtually every major artist still performing. He's been very happily living in Guilderland the last 5 years, as an active retiree sharing his love of music by writing online reviews for a number of web sites, preparing DVD presentations to various groups, co-Hosting Radio programs showcasing his favorite artists and busily supporting A Place for Jazz and the SwingTime Society in a variety of ways.