It is a rare treat to hear brilliant music performed live by the geniuses who composed it. Young jazz aficionados must rely on old recordings, books and documentaries to transport themselves into the music halls of yesteryear if they want to experience performances by the legendary jazz orchestras of Count Basie and Duke Ellington. However, on the evening of March 14, the audience at Segerstrom Center for the Arts got the next best thing.
Nine-time Grammy Award winner Wynton Marsalis is not only a brilliant musician and composer but he is also an educator and a champion of the arts. Last Friday, he and his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra raised awareness about a cross-section of songs while providing renditions of them that were so beautiful, words simply cannot do them justice. Segerstrom's senior music programming director, Aaron Egigian, was responsible for the program, and pursuant to his request, the orchestra performed the songs of Count Basie and Duke Ellington in their original arrangements.
Prior to each of the songs that the orchestra performed during its hour and a half concert, Marsalis took his time providing the audience with commentary. The tone of this commentary ranged from humorous to bittersweet, and it included: the story behind each of the compositions, discussions about the different periods of each of the legendary orchestras (particularly in regards to the Count Basie orchestra's periods of “Old Testament” and “New Testament” styles), personal anecdotes, and some light banter with the crowd.
Among the personal anecdotes he shared, he revealed that when he was eight years- old, his father had offered him an opportunity to see a performance of Duke Ellington's orchestra (one of his relatives was actually in the orchestra), and Marsalis had declined in favor of watching Batman on television. He revealed that the lesson here was that when there was something of major significance going on: “Don't ask your kids if they want to go; just take them.”
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is comprised of 15 virtuoso performers. During the course of the concert, each of those 15 (including one substitute) took his turn adding personal flourishes to the classic songs. The more emotionally charged solos registered on the faces of Marsalis and various members of the orchestra as well as elicited sighs, cries, and applause from satisfied members of the audience.
When the orchestra performs Marsalis's original compositions, it is a mature and elegant affair. But when the classical and jazz trumpeter leads his orchestra on a historical tour of the works of the famous and prolific bandleaders Count Basie and Duke Ellington, it is an enlightening and humbling experience. Marsalis is not universally regarded with the respect that earned him titles such as: the Martha Stewart of Jazz and Dr. Jazz; however, experiencing this concert, featuring his commentary and his orchestra of highly skilled players, was probably the closest that most attendees will ever come to the sensations of the people who witnessed the original performances of Count Basie's and Duke Ellington's orchestras.