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REVIEW: The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Comes to Minnesota (Orchestra Hall)

A photo collage of the current Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra roster.

One of the pleasures of being a jazz fan is hearing great musicians in small club settings where the feel is intimate and many of the seats are just a few feet away from the stars. Occasionally, though, there is something very fine about hearing a jazz ensemble at the top of its game while sitting among 2,000 or so new friends, in an acoustically perfect large setting. That happened last night, when Wynton Marsalis brought his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis for a wonderful evening of classic jazz.

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, founded in 1988, is led by Wynton Marsalis, and features 14 other musicians. The orchestra is racially diverse, but entirely composed of men. It tours several months each year, spending the remainder of its time performing in the center of Manhattan, at the eponymous Lincoln Center. Its journey to Minnesota was sponsored by the Dakota Jazz Club.

The ensemble’s music is a mixture of jazz standards and newly commissioned works. Like an old-time jazz big band, the players appear in suit and tie, and usually stand up for their solos. And their repertoire this evening was strong on jazz tradition: four of the songs were written by Jelly Roll Morton, and one each by Ray Noble, Duke Ellington, and Sonny Rollins – all arranged for the Orchestra by its members; the remaining songs were new compositions by Orchestra members.

Marsalis is, of course, the best known name, the headliner – a musician who has won numerous Grammies, in both jazz and classical music categories, and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for his oratorio Blood on the Fields. However, when the Orchestra performed, Marsalis was just the first among equals. He did begin the concert with a lovely solo rendition of “Cherokee” (a song he recorded over 35 years ago, on Marsalis Standard Time, Volume 1). However, after that, he receded to a seat at the back of the Orchestra, taking only two or three solos through the rest of the 2-hour performance. (While the performance occurred only days after the release of the Orchestra’s excellent new album, Handful of Keys, there did not seem to be any overlap between the night’s song selections and that of the album.)

Marsalis functioned as the voice of the Orchestra, announcing the songs and explaining a bit of the way the ensemble operates. The term “ensemble” fits this group very well: they make sure that every musician is featured at least once in each performance, and (as mentioned) the group shares widely in the arrangement of older pieces and the composition of new pieces. The night offered numerous amazing performances, including Marcus Printup on trumpet, Chris Crenshaw on trombone, Dan Nimmer on piano, Sherman Irby on saxophone, and Carlos Henriquez on Bass, but every player on the stage had solos that evoked awe and delight from the audience. Tthere was even a jazz tuba solo, something I had never heard before.

With performances this stellar, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra can help to assure the future of jazz music, while also reaffirming its grand past.

Brian Bix