One thing in particular is guaranteed whenever the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra performs: swing, swing, and more swing. The orchestra, led by trumpeter, educator, and composer Wynton Marsalis did just that during their concert on Sunday afternoon at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, MI. The concert was sponsored by the performing arts center University Musical Society, which is affiliated with the University of Michigan.
Marsalis has a long-standing relationship with UMS, and Sunday marked his 17th appearance at the performing arts center, both with the orchestra and with other ensembles. During the program, Marsalis and the JLCO were presented with the 2014 Distinguished Artist Award for their educational contributions to UMS.
The orchestra made its debut at UMS in 1994, and for the last 15 years they have been performing at the center and showcasing their superior musical talent.
The big band orchestra consists of 15 renowned musicians who each put their own twist on a variety of compositions by well-known jazz composers. During the concert, the JLCO played compositions by a range of legendary jazz musicians including Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton and Buddy Bolden. The orchestra also paid tribute to the work of some Detroit-native composers like guitarist Kenny Burrell, and drummer Ali Jackson, who is also a member of the orchestra.
Marsalis’ New Orleans roots were in full swing during the first part of the show as part of the horn section played a collective improvisational tune by cornetist and bandleader Buddy Bolden, who was one of the first prominent New Orleans jazz musicians. They continued in the New Orleans traditional music style by playing two blues tunes by Jelly Roll Morton, “Smokehouse Blues” and “Deadman Blues” a somber dirge, which featured powerful solos by Marsalis and trombonist Chris Crenshaw, who was also on vocals.
The entire orchestra then went through a list of Ellington compositions, each from a different decade in the composer’s lifetime. Ellington’s music is a very important part of the orchestra’s overall mission and Marsalis has consistently devoted many of his shows to the musician and bandleader’s work, which spans over 50 years.
The first part of Ellingtonia consisted of the symphonic, bluesy “Portrait of Wellman Braud” from Ellignton’s 1970 New Orleans Suite. The tune starts off with a mysteriously repetitive piano intro by Dan Nimmer and throughout the piece, Kenny Rampston’s bright muted trumpet took center stage and dominated a majority of the song.
The orchestra then traveled back to the 1930s and 1940s and visited some of Ellington’s earlier works including the sweet jazz tune “Old Man Blues” which was featured in the 1930 comedy film Check and Double Check, and featured Ellington’s Cotton Club orchestra. Jackson went into powerhouse overload during his rapid solo on the high-hat and the fire was equally torched by trombonist Vincent Gardner.
Jackson’s composing skills were also showcased during the Detroit-part of the show, where his arrangement of the Kermit the Frog anthem ” It’s Not Easy Being Green” was played by the orchestra. Jackson’s soft, sensitive arrangement of the tune added a nice touch to the concert along with tenor vocals from Gardner.
The orchestra ended the concert on an upbeat note, just as they began, with Ellington’s “Happy Go Lucky” from his 1946 album Deep South Suite. The band dedicated the cheerful tune to the newly retired UM president Mary Sue Coleman, who was honored earlier that evening for her contributions to the university.