On October 15th, our “small-town” Victoria, city of sunshine and friendliness, was also the lucky host of Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra. Hailed as the best jazz orchestra in the world, it was quite a surprise that they ended up in this little city at all. As the opposite of a jazz expert myself, I hopped on the bandwagon, thinking if they were the best in the world, it had to be a good show. They were a good old-fashioned big band, dressed in sharp suits and ties for all except one, Ms. Helen Sung, substitute pianist and beautiful in a black dress. Their audience was a near-360 degrees-sold-out Farquhar Auditorium, complete with students ranging from middle school to university aged perched in the balcony. Sitting in the choir loft gave a unique perspective. I think we lost a bit of the saxophones, and thus, the overall balance, but I was able to see everything the drummer, Mr. Ali Jackson, was doing. And boy, he was incredible.
A highlight of the concert, for me, was the extremely charismatic and intricately creative rhythm section. Ali Jackson, the drummer, made enough music for a human with at least eight limbs. I knew that drum kit playing had to musical, despite lacking, at least overtly, the two other main aspects of music: melody and harmony. But the way he locked in with the others, adding a hit on the cymbal with a trumpet exclamation or a thump on the tom-toms as a beat 4 interjection, his playing melded with the melodic instruments in a way that made his percussion into melodic instruments as well. Ms. Helen Sung was a powerful, creative improviser and endlessly energetic as a member of the rhythm section. It sounded like she had a very solid Classical training, particularly in her improvisations. They were harmonically clearer, had a tone that was little more declamatory that the usual jazz pianists I listen to, and were filled with Romantic and modern accompaniment figures. I liked it – richer and more attention-holding. Her rhythmic (section) playing was sensitive and tight, I couldn’t see her often, but when I did, she was head-bobbing away and full of smiles. The final member of the rhythm section was double-bassist Carlos Henriquez, who had a great powerful sound. Often, in digital recordings, I find that the bass is a little lost. In this live show of such high calibre, I could hear him anytime I wanted to. I loved it when he showed off, his improvisations maximized his large range and rhythmic vitality.
Because of the nature of the pieces, with all the improvisatory sections and the very fair distribution of to all of them, they didn’t actually play a large number of pieces. I had two favourite pieces. The first was called “Armageddon” and was played in the middle of the first half. It was a darker, slower tune, and featured a short minor melodic motive that permeated throughout the piece. The soloist, Marcus Printup, often played the motive just as it was, without adding excessive embellishments. I thought this was particularly effective, especially because he played his trumpet with great depth of tone and subtle articulation. The other piece was by Duke Ellington (unfortunately I missed the title), and featured the extraordinary clarinetist Victor Goines. His opening section was so special – the notes felt like huge waves sweeping in and out, complete with echoes that could have been reverberations in the hall or just the effect of unforgettable music resonating in my head. I think he may have used the pentatonic scale, as well as other musical figures and gestures unique from the usual jazz clichés, to create such unusual and magical phrases. As he walked around the back of the orchestra to return to his seat, he gave a gruff but acknowledging nod to those of us seated in the choir loft, and I wondered if he had any idea just how much the music he played resonated in and affected me.
From the incredible rhythm section, to my two favourite tunes that I wished they played over and over, it was a concert with moments to remember. Thinking about the improvisatory passages that I can still remember, they all have something in common. The music was creative and unusual, different from the often-heard, play-as-many-notes-as-possible type of improvisation that I not only cannot understand, but do not particularly like. Upon returning home, I tried to look up some pieces they played, like Armageddon. It was good, but not quite the same. I suppose it means the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra really is as good as they say.