Handing trumpeter Wynton Marsalis the programming duties for this inaugural year of the new-direction National Black Arts Festival was a smart, safe bet. Marsalis has set out to create a music series that offers a rich vision of a portion of jazz history, presenting some of the music’s luminaries aside younger acts.
Friday, Marsalis kicked off his gig as curator with his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at Symphony Hall, setting a high bar for future concerts in the NBAF series. The next show, featuring the Heath Brothers Quartet Plus Jeremy Pelt, takes place at the Rialto Center for the Arts on August 23. The Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet and the Marcus Roberts Trio appear at venues around town in September.
The JLCO is no stranger to Atlanta, and I’ve reviewed multiple concerts they’ve put on at Symphony Hall over the years. At times, the band’s sound seemingly became trapped in the large, somewhat unforgiving space, or the musicians have seemed a little uninspired, despite playing for a hometown crowd — a handful of the players have ties to Atlanta and surrounding communities. Marsalis has always, though, given the utmost respect to the music, and his 15-piece band always looks uniformly dapper — for this show, light gray suits, blue shirts and black shoes lent an effortlessly polished air to the proceedings.
As always, Marsalis highlighted the hometown musicians in the band and brought out tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding,Jr.’s, mother, local singer Audrey Shakir, to rousing applause four numbers into the band’s set. Shakir — who has recorded with HotShoe Records and has an easy “classic jazz” voice, a second-nature grasp of improvisation and a wide, big-band vibrato — playfully sang the Eddie Cantor tune “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” with a bit of instrumental support from her son.
Marsalis started the night with a bit of a solo warmup, coming to the front of the stage and letting out a barrage of notes, peals and runs, preparing the audience for a show of instrumental pyrotechnics. And with Shakir’s appearance, the band had established the tone for the night — a convivial, laid-back atmosphere that nonetheless featured a band in top performance shape.
For the most part, Friday night wasn’t about awe-inspiring technical skill; it was about giving the NBAF audience an enjoyable and engaging study of jazz. Marsalis, perhaps taking his status as the NBAF’s programmer to heart, gave context for nearly every piece of cherished jazz material — the band played all standards, with arrangements from musicians in the group. The band excels at fast tempos, but while there were bits of flash and technical wizardry throughout the concert, the orchestra went for substance and musicianship over technical prowess. While every musician is a formidable soloist in his own right, the group sound prevailed over individual tendencies.
This idea surfaced most notably in the saxophone section during Charles Mingus’ “Self-Portrait in Three Shades,” an achingly quiet, introspective composition. The saxophones, barely above a whisper, pushed out the tune with expertly balanced tone color; moving in synch, the group played as one instrument. It was the most bite-sized tune of the night, nestled among a spirited version of Thelonious Monk’s “Skippy” and blues tunes from Jelly Roll Morton and Horace Silver.
While the rest of the NBAF jazz concerts certainly look appealing on paper, they’ll have a hard time living up to the example set by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.