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Lincoln Centre Orchestra – weekend afterthoughts

June 29, 2014

We had a great time at the Lincoln Centre Orchestra concert at Colston Hall on Thursday. As Mike Collins says, it was a real event – and it drew an impressive crowd. I heard a guy afterwards preparing to drive back to Lyme Regis, so some obviously came a long way for the sights and sounds of this 15-piece, and its leader. No surprise, as Wynton Marsalis must be the best known serious jazz player on the planet (except maybe Diana Krall…) but good to see.

It’s a fine band, full of individually brilliant players, and this tour’s focus on the Blue Note repertoire gives them plenty of great tunes to play. Other reviewers have filed good reports.

And yet, a few reservations have crept in since the gig. Not that it wasn’t good. But, judged by the highest standard, it somehow wasn’t that great, for me. And there is a standing invitation to hold them to that standard  in the LCJO/Serious’s use of a promotional line from the Telegraph: “the finest big band in the world”.

They’re really not. Possibly the finest repertoire big band around, though my vote there would go to the Mingus Big Band or the San Francisco Jazz collective (medium sized band). They are expert practitioners of a demanding art, but they aren’t, you know, adding to it. That perhaps isn’t the intention, and the whole point of the LJCO, I guess, is that the USA should support one proper orchestra that treats classic jazz at the highest level, and keeps it before audiences.

OK, fine. So they are never going to aspire to the heights of big bands offering newly created music. They simply aren’t competing with the likes of Loose Tubes, fresh in the mind from Cheltenham, or the ensembles animated by, say, Gil Evans, Mike Gibbs, Mike Westbrook, Carla Bley, Maria Schneider, or Darcy James Argue, still less Muhal Richard Abrams, David Murray or Oliver Lake…   (I could go on).

But even as expert recreators, their choices are a little conservative. We were never likely to hear anything from Blue Note recording artists like Sam Rivers or Andrew Hill – who both at times also ran amazing big bands, incidentally – (though to be fair they closed their Bristol set with quite a chewy piece from Chick Corea’s Now He Sings, Now He Sobs). That isn’t necessarily a problem, either, as there are great swathes of Blue Note Stuff to draw on aside from those. But it did mean we basically had an evening of hard bop – Lee Morgan, Lou Donaldson, Messengers‘ era Wayne Shorter, Cedar Walton, Dexter Gordon, and a big helping of Horace Silver as a mark of his demise the previous week.

That is always great to hear, and is only a problem because it is quintessentially small group music. It is then a challenge for an arranger for big band to add anything. Sometimes making additional musical forces available can put small group music in a whole new light – Dave Holland’s big band recordings are a notable example. Not sure that happened here. The arrangements came from quite a few members of the band, and most were quite ordinary, as is the LCJO’s instrumentation (no tuba, no oboe or bassoon, no guitar, certainly no electronics…). The Horace Silver tunes fared best, I reckon. It would be fascinating to hear an entire big band set devoted to his work, though not sure who should do the arrangements.

If this is more than nit-picking – and maybe it’s not – I guess I mean that what the evening lacked was a sense of roaming a little wider through the jazz landscape, and coming up with a few surprises. The reaosn that doesn’t happen was perhaps betrayed by a remark of the leader’s. Commenting on the disappearance, fifty years on,  of anyone who cares about disputes over the relative merits of gospelly hard bop versus cool jazz, he said (quoting from memory) “now we just play all music, without any regard for style”. Now that is striking to hear because it sounds to me like a man in denial of how deep he has sunk into one furrow. It is, in truth, exactly what Wynton does not do. If anything, he can take any earlier jazz style and make it sound like Wynton Marsalis swinging. And anything later than hard bop seems to leave him a bit at sea these days, his early career excursions into Milesian freebop territory notwithstanding.

Perhaps the bottom line is that Marsalis and his home institution suit each other. And he is still an astonishing player – the five-piece that took the stage instead of an orchestral encore blew in some welcome gusts of spontaneity. Long may the LCJO continue, if not as the best big band in the world then as a top ensemble spreading the jazz message. But could the US possibly fund a complementary effort, please? Jason Moran is now artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center. Give that man an orchestra, I say!

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