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Review: Wynton Marsalis' JLCO at Symphony Center

Howard Reich

10:10 AM CDT, June 22, 2013

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Is it possible that a quarter century has passed since the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra was created?

Apparently so, for the mighty ensemble played the Chicago stop on its 25th anniversary tour Friday night at Symphony Center, a capacity audience crowding Orchestra Hall, including stage seating.

"This is our home away from home," artistic director Wynton Marsalis told the crowd, and he was not exaggerating. This band was playing this venue back when the ensemble still was called the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and Symphony Center didn't yet exist (Orchestra Hall did).

The band's visits to 220 S. Michigan Ave. have become a seasonal ritual in Chicago, no small feat for an organization based in Manhattan. Civic pride might have suggested that Chicagoans wouldn't necessarily embrace an ensemble from a competing cultural center, but JLCO'S technical brilliance and Marsalis' engagement with Chicago students and arts institutions enabled everyone to transcend petty rivalries.

Simply put, when a band plays this well and clings to its aesthetic principals – in the face of some criticism – nothing else really matters.

Though no single evening could encapsulate the ensemble's contributions during the last 25 years, Friday night's program referenced several critical ones.

First and foremost has been the institution's fidelity to the repertoire and musical values of Duke Ellington, the most prolific and influential composer in jazz. When the band made its Chicago debut in Orchestra Hall on Sept. 25, 1992 (during its first national tour), Marsalis and colleagues offered an ambitious all-Ellington program. Its highlights included evocative treatments of far-flung works such as the early-period "Black and Tan Fantasy" and the jazz-meets-the-classics experiments of Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's "Peer Gynt."

This time, Marsalis reaffirmed the band's roots in Ellington's art, calling the composer's work "the foundation of our institution" and proving it in the best way possible: through performance.

Ellington's "Braggin' in Brass," from 1938, appears infrequently in concert, for good reason: It's fiendishly difficult to play well. Brass choirs weren't necessarily built to fly through mercurial passages with such precision and unanimity of phrase. But the JLCO horns closed the concert's first half with an outrageously brisk, remarkably controlled account. Better still, the band captured the flavor and style of late-'30s Ellington, evident in the way it paced crescendos and articulated instrumental attacks.

In Ellington's "Self-Portrait (of the Bean)," from the "Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins" album, JLCO reedist Victor Goines played the most lusciously romantic tenor saxophone solo Chicago has heard from him. The velvety softness of his timbre and the perfervid expression of his delivery conjured a more romantic – and much missed– era in jazz history.

Both Ellington selections showed what Marsalis meant about the role Ellington has played in a band formed in 1988 – many years after Ellington's death in 1974, at age 75. Virtuosity and romance were central to Ellington's work and radiate through JLCO's performances and recordings, as well. Ellington's era may have come and gone, but the model he established still resonates in our culture, nowhere more than in the work of JLCO.

This historically informed approach has been a magnet for criticism aimed at Marsalis and his organization, detractors suggesting that these musicians are too beholden to the past, at the expense of new music.

But JLCO's commissioning of original works argues compellingly to the contrary, its new scores bristling with original ideas – without turning away from what Ellington and others still can teach us.

Several such pieces brightened Friday's program, starting with Carlos Henriquez's Afro-Latin tone poem "Calle de Oro." Though the piece drew upon familiar dance rhythms steeped in Caribbean culture, its interior dissonances and layering of orchestral sections rendered it fresh and vital. Marsalis' creamy tone and ample vibrato in an extended solo crystallized certain Afro-Cuban brass traditions and underscored the value of an important, immensely appealing new work.

Similarly, the exultant climactic passages of trombonist Chris Crenshaw's "The Creation" – with its soulful brass-section writing and clarion trumpet solo from Marcus Printup – showed what sensitive orchestration is all about. And Sherman Irby's "Insatiable Hunger" brought forth the darkest shades of this band's palette, even if some passages drew obvious inspiration from certain sections of Marsalis' "Blood on the Fields" and "All Rise."

In a way, this evening showed that there's really more than one Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. You could hear the band continually redefining itself through the ethereal tone and translucent textures of Gerry Mulligan's "Swing House"; the Count Basie-like, blues-based exhortations of Frank Foster's "Blues in Hoss' Flat"; and the ferociously complex syncopations and puckish instrumental voicings of drummer Ali Jackson's ingenious arrangement of Chick Corea's "Wigwam."

Yes, it takes a long time for a band to achieve this kind of versatility.

Twenty-five years.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich