Wynton Marsalis’ visit to Symphony Hall last night was a bit unusual, for him. Yes, he brought his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, but he left his classical compositions at home and there were no new multi-movement jazz suites on the program. (The jazz orchestra premiered “Portrait in Seven Shades” by alto saxophonist Ted Nash in Atlanta last March.)
The trumpeter always seems to have his hand in multiple long-form projects of both the classical and jazz persuasions, which push his creative boundaries and stretch the comfort zones of the musicians. Some of Marsalis’ most ambitious hybrids, such as his “Blues Symphony,” commissioned by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Boston Symphony, remain unfinished. But last night was all about his band and giving the audience what they came to hear. Marsalis and the 14 musicians displayed their compositional skills and improvisational chops in a night of relatively short jazz tunes.
This concert required no programmatic thinking and introduced no overarching themes. Cute renditions of nursery rhymes geared toward bringing young children to jazz, a few jam tunes that allowed soloists to stretch their chops, and a thorough excavation of pianist Chick Corea’s music allowed the band to focus on how jazz is being presented to today’s audiences while also looking back at the music’s recent history.
The most accessible pieces — “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “Old McDonald Had a Farm” — were well arranged tunes that broke up nursery-rhyme melodies and packaged them in interesting ways. “Itsy Bitsy” had a pleasantly chopped-up and whipped-around melody, played expertly by the sax section doubling on clarinets and flutes. The rubato journey through the melody was a contrast to Nash’s arrangement of “Old McDonald,” which takes off like a shot with a sax chorale opening.
Corea’s “You’re Everything,” in a version by tenor saxophonist Victor Goines, took the prize for arrangement of the night. The original piano line gave Goines a lot of material to play with, and he ran with it all, creating interlocking band parts that always kept the melody — originally sung, on Corea’s “Light as a Feather,” by Flora Purim — at the forefront.
Marsalis and his band have breathed new life into jazz music and produced heaps of accessible, audience-pleasing repertory. Listeners were excited by the music, shouting out during breaks and riotously clapping after each solo. Whatever critics and jazz musicians outside of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra circle ultimately think of Marsalis and his music is a point of contention, but he puts people into the seats. And in today’s music market, isn’t that what matters most?