Home, sweet mama!
The Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, outside Chicago, is the oldest outdoor music festival in the United States (as well as, they claim, the “most prestigious,” whatever that means). Needless to say, Glasto it’s not. This isn’t a bunch of hippie kids rolling their faces off in pitched tents covered in mud; it’s a family event. It’s a place to take your wife, your kids, your date (though probably not all three at once), picnic, drink, and listen to all sorts of music, from high classical to rock and roll. The festival is also civic-minded, with their Reach*Teach*Play program focused on nourishing the musical talents of local children.
As such, it is the perfect venue for Wynton Marsalis, who has concentrated his career on education and outreach almost as much as on music. Jazz at Lincoln Center has a year-round education & outreach program, geared towards giving children opportunities they would not otherwise have.
The JLCO is basically indisputably excellent. Honestly, who would want to argue that it isn’t comprised of fantastic musicians? And with some obvious stand-outs. Every time I see them I am blown away by their rhythm section, Ali Jackson on the drums and Carlos Henriquez on the bass. There is conceivably a better bass player out there, but frankly I’m not sure what that would entail. And their pianist, who is arguably part of the rhythm section – he plays a similar part, i.e. laying down the foundation for the brass and wind, when he’s laying back; plus the piano is kind of a rhythm instrument: playing the keys causes the hammers to percuss the strings – is also exceptional. Really, there are too many stand-outs to name them all.
And with Wynton Marsalis at their head, they play predominantly traditional jazz. Marsalis is an interesting character: there are plenty of people in the jazz community who believe that he never actualized his true potential. Miles Davis actually forced him off the stage once when they were playing together. That said, he is undeniably talented. He simply has a very traditional, classical view of jazz. Which doesn’t negatively impact his audience: JLCO plays almost nothing but crowd-pleasers, and they play them well. Last night they opened with Dizzy Gillespie’s “Things to Come,” tight, showy, yet tasteful. Duke Ellington’s “Sunset & the Mocking Bird,” the first movement of his “Queen Suite,” would have blown the doors off the place, if the place had doors; the baritone saxophonist, Joe Temperley, looking like an artifact from the Purple Gang, gave a tender, mellow, and above all excellent solo, playing lines distinctly Davis. And during first set-closer “Blue Room” by Rodgers and Hart, in a well-textured arrangement by Eddie Durham, people were hardly staying in their seats. If the crowd were a little younger, and there were a dance floor, it’s doubtful anyone would have been able to remain sitting. The other two classics they played were the “Snake Rag” by King Oliver’s Creole Band, in which Louis Armstrong played second coronet, and a resounding rendition of Chick Corea’s “Armando’s Rhumba.”
Their original compositions also stick fairly strictly to the classical jazz realm. The first original they played, a piece by trombonist Chris Crenshaw, had parts that already sound 60 years old, like they’d be sampled comfortably by Black Star or Common for modern hip hop. Marsalis called the song “comprehensive,” and he’s exactly right. It spanned cool jazz, dance hall jazz, and more. Saxophonist Ted Nash’s MoMA piece, the Monet movement of “Portrait in Seven Shades,” was exciting, and the impressionistic feel comes through the music. And trombonist Vincent Gardner’s “Blue Twirl” felt almost like a piece of classical music composed by Ives or Britten rather than a jazz piece. Another thing this concert drove home was the intimate connection between art and jazz. Several pieces drew inspiration from paintings or painters.
This was a very enjoyable concert. JLCO is not exactly forward-thinking or cutting-edge. They are a group of preservationists, classicists, and educators. And they do what they do very well, to the great enjoyment of the audience. And perhaps that is enough; perhaps it is even more than enough.
Reviewed on 6.12.11
For full festival information, visit the Ravinia website.