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In the Traditional

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra With Wynton Marsalis, Shriver Hall, Sept. 8

Jefferson Jackson Steele
NEW WINE, OLD BOTTLES: The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra retakes Coltrane.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 9/12/2007

In jazz, the usual approach is to take older repertoire and update it. But Saturday night at Shriver Hall, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, under the conservative leadership of Wynton Marsalis, took classic jazz compositions and backdated them.

The 15-member big band kicked off its 15-city fall tour in Baltimore with an extended suite of five pieces by John Coltrane. But the arrangements treated the avant-garde saxophonist as if he had more in common with Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster than with Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman, as if he hadn't emerged in the late '50s via the bands of Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk and had instead emerged in the late '30s as a member of the Count Basie Orchestra.

It may sound like a dumb idea, but there's a certain logic to it, for Coltrane did grow up listening to Hawkins and Webster, and eventually recorded with Hawkins. Marsalis' backdating strategy allowed us to hear Coltrane's groundbreaking innovations in the light of his childhood influences and fully harmonized by a '40s-style big band. And the JLCO did it well, turning "Chasin' the Trane" into a Basie-like locomotive and "Mr. Knight" into a swooning bit of World War II romance. The band did something similar to Wayne Shorter's 1964 ballad "Infant Eyes," recasting it as a sumptuous 1944 Duke Ellington Orchestra number.

This isn't the strongest edition of the JLCO that Marsalis has assembled; the piano chair and trombone section sounded particularly weak. But the band still contains such notable bandleaders as saxophonists Sherman Irby and Ted Nash as well as trumpeters Ryan Kisor and Marcus Printup. Best of all was drummer Ali Jackson, an inventive powerhouse who shook more than one tune out of its routine. The JCLO handled such tricky numbers as Coltrane's "Africa" and Nash's 13/8 tribute to Salvador Dali with confidence.

But the group actually sounded strongest on the simplest blues. Coltrane's "The Sleeper" fits that description, and Irby took a wonderful alto-sax solo that twisted the theme into one playful shape after another, each time answered by a blasting phrase from the whole horn section. His solo was then eclipsed by an even better one from Marsalis himself, who attacked the blues changes from every conceivable angle in a mind-boggling run of blurred notes that never once slipped out of his control. Whatever else he may be, Marsalis is probably the greatest technical trumpeter America has ever produced.

The encore was a trad-jazz blues stomp that Marsalis introduced with a mumble and then kicked off with a braying trumpet solo shaped by a toilet plunger. He invited Maryland's own Larry Willis to take over the piano, and the two men traded rollicking, bluesy licks with obvious pleasure.

Marsalis emceed the show from his chair in the back row of the horn-section riser with the kind of relaxed jocularity that has made him a favorite of television producers. He couldn't resist making cracks about hip-hop and modern fashion, however, and that reactionary instinct was in keeping with his approach to Coltrane. Marsalis is the most talented jazz musician of his generation, but his fear of modernity has prevented him from making the most of that gift.

One word of warning: Never buy a ticket for the Shriver balcony if you're taller than 5-foot-8; the seats are designed for small children with exceptionally sharp eyes and ears.

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