If jazz is America's classical music, why aren't there more groups like the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra?
Clearly, if one accepts the idea that jazz has more than its share of great composers, then the need for a jazz repertory company seems obvious. How can the work of a genius like Duke Ellington be treasured if his compositions and arrangements are no longer being played?
But as the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra made plain during its performance at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Tuesday, hearing another jazz band play Ellington is not the same thing as hearing the Ellington Band itself. Whether or not that's a bad thing depends entirely upon the listener's expectations.
Under the direction of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, the LCJO has become a truly awesome jazz ensemble. Not only does it boast a wide range of gifted soloists, including such stellar talents as clarinetist Victor Goines, trumpeter Ryan Kisor, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, pianist Farid Barron and drummer Herlin Riley, but it is blessed with an ensemble sound powerful and cohesive enough to belie the 16 players onstage.
As such, the LCJO had no trouble making Ellington's music roar. Whether dealing with something as tuneful and familiar as "Perdido" or "Take the 'A' Train," or as intricate and demanding as "Ad Lib on Nippon" or "The Happy-Go-Lucky Local," Marsalis' men played with such vibrancy that it was hard not to be swept away by the performance.
And yet, it was just as hard to be completely convinced by the concert. Because as great as the ensemble playing was, the improvisations were uneven, as some of the LCJO musicians struggled to find a voice that was both Ellingtonian and their own.
Baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley -- the only actual Ellington veteran in the band -- had no trouble putting his own stamp on the Harry Carney showcase "Sophisticated Lady." Alto saxophonist Ted Nash brilliantly split the difference between bop-schooled abstraction and swing-era melodicism during his solo in "Caravan," while on "Chinoiserie," both Riley and Barron brought a distinctly personal touch to their improvisation.
On the other hand, Kisor was unable to sustain his ideas in "Take the 'A' Train," running out of steam midway through the second verse, and Goines' bluesy clarinet flourishes in "The Happy-Go-Lucky Local" were distressingly mechanical at points.
Perhaps the greatest disappointment, though, was Marsalis' solo during the showcase piece, "The Shepherd and the Late Night Flock." Granted, it was a bravura performance, and there was no quibbling with either his technique or his tone. But, at the same time, neither was there much wit or joy; instead, there was something vaguely laborious about his approach to the blues. Clark Terry he's not.
Then again, who is? And that, ultimately, may be why there aren't more groups like the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra around. Because it's hard enough for a jazz musician to develop a distinctive instrumental voice; to maintain that voice while delivering another's lines may ask too much.