Duke Ellington Sacred Concerts---Oxford University Jazz Orchestra and Schola Cantorum Oxford

Just came from an extraordinary concert at the Sheldonian Theatre in which the Oxford University Jazz Orchestra and the Schola Cantorum of Oxford performed a version of Duke Ellington's Sacred Concerts, with two pieces from composer and baritone Roderick Williams' Oxford Blues Service inserted in the Sacred Concert running order.  This constituted the second half of the program; I'll perhaps write in another post about the first half, which featured many good things but a sound balance that was slightly problematic at times, with the band occasionally drowning out the excellent guest soloist, alto saxophonist Nigel Hitchcock.  (I can't allude to the first half, though, without mentioning the really superb singing of first-year Olivia Williams in "Lookin' Back" and "Feelin' Good".)  In the second half, the balance was suddenly almost perfect, the bass acoustic throughout, the swing consistent and unforced, and immediately with the meditative baritone saxophone solo, originally performed by Harry Carney, that introduces "In the Beginning God" we were immersed in Duke Ellington's world of sound and his personal take on religion and spirituality.  Besides the excellence of the band, choir, and soloists, the conducting and preparation of the musicians by Schola conductor James Burton was clearly crucial to the success of this performance.  Nigel Hitchcock's beautiful alto playing was another crucial ingredient, but the regular band members who played key solos, like the baritone sax in "In the Beginning", the clarinet in "Freedom", the plunger-muted trumpet in "The Shepherd" did themselves and the Duke proud as well.  The Roderick Williams pieces "Gray Skies Passing Over" and "The Lord's Prayer"  fit in perfectly, being in a somewhat harmonically lush jazz-to-mid-twentieth-century pop vocal style very similar to parts of the Ellington vocal score, but more contrapuntal, with, I think, an echo of English, and even perhaps Renaissance, church music.

Besides getting real swing from the ensemble, Burton kept things relaxed but accurate, with a real dynamic range, the band in balance with the soloists (Ellington's writing presumably helps here too), expressive phrasing and control over the pace and development of each piece.  "Freedom" was another standout, done with intense feeling and great energy, drawing roars of approval from the audience.  But all the movements were executed superbly, and there were many such moments.  The tap-dancing of Annette Walker, in "David Danced Before The Lord" was another highlight.

This was an utterly professional-sounding performance that felt infused with the passion of people who are together reaching a level they may or may not have reached before, in the zone, giving the audience a musical experience not to be forgotten.  The Sacred Concerts may be a work best experienced live---it was certainly immensely effective, enjoyable, powerful, and moving in this performance.  Bass player and alto Lila Chrisp who is in both groups apparently had the idea that they should join forces in this piece.  I'm very grateful to everyone involved for making this happen and really filling the Sheldonian with the spirit---especially the spirit of Duke Ellington and his band.


Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis

Two nights ago, I heard the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, at the Lensic Performance Center in Santa Fe. Excellent concert. Trying to reconstruct the setlist will be tricky. It started with John Lewis' 1940s composition Two Bass Hit. Nice reminder that bop developed almost as much, if not more, in big bands of the era as in uptown NY jam sessions like those at Minton's. A punchy arrangement, with a good solo by Marsalis. His tone is great, and perhaps best heard live, very large, very flexible, burnished but capable of being bright, but not usually brittle. Very loose, flexible phrasing too, occasionally seeming almost a little too loose. A big, big sound, the Armstrong influence on his trumpet sound very evident, somewhat rare since bebop days, and good to hear. This was followed by another Lewis song, from later in his career, I think, and with more of the classical chamber-jazz influence that Lewis pioneered; also excellent. A highlight of the program, which I think was next in the concert, was a movement, "Insatiable Hunger", from a suite based on Dante's Inferno, by one of the orchestra's saxophonists, Sherman Irby. I realize this sounds potentially pretentious and ill-conceived, but nope, this was not the case. Although the opening theme played by a sax made me a little uncomfortable because it it sounded like it was a quote of another famous jazz tune (which, however, I didn't manage to put my finger on), but then veered away from it, overall the piece really worked. Very bluesy, with lots of lines and phrases some of which are almost blues clichés worked together antiphonally and contrapuntally, really getting up a head of steam. Not sure if this was intricate through-composed work (probably) or wild collective improvisation by a seasoned team working together (my guess is there was only a bit of improvising going on, if any), but it worked well. I'd just been reading Amiri Baraka's "Digging", and thought to myself at this point that I could see why, besides any possible sociopolitical reasons, he digs this group.

A Gerry Mulligan chart, originally for the Woody Herman orchestra, was played with verve and underlined the fact that Mulligan was probably as important as an arranger as he was as a saxophonist---his work was as important a component as anyone's of the seminal Miles Davis Birth of the Cool sessions, for example.  Excellent solo from Paul Nedzela on baritone sax (Mulligan's instrument).

Ted Nash's arrangement of Clifford Brown's Ceora was a bit heavy on flutes and a maybe a bit fussily arranged for my taste, but still very enjoyable, as was the other Nash arrangement on the program, Chick Corea's 3/4 tune Windows,

Generally a high standard of soloing. Wish I could be certain of who played which solo, and remember more clearly to credit some excellent players. More detail, perhaps, after I look back at the program.

A fast, punchy arrangement of a tune I think they attributed to Charlie Parker (but was it Donna Lee? I thought that was actually written by Miles Davis...) was top-notch. A good solo on alto from Sherman Irby.

A piece by a youngish trombonist with the band, titled "God's Trombones". I'm embarassed I don't remember this well enough to really give a critical appraisal; I remember enjoying it.

The concert finished with "Braggin' in Brass", the sole Ellington piece of the night, with Marsalis' in his prefatory monologue drawing attention to the fact that this is a showpiece for a difficult trombone part. In fact, the opening muted trumpets were pretty impressive too, but the three trombones' unison on the superfast, syncopated trombone chorus was unbelievable---they sounded like one instrument.  (Hard to be certain without an audio record, but it seems like the unison was tighter than in the 2010 video from a Havana concert that is linked above.) This was the evening's other piece featuring a Marsalis solo, and it was a good one, pretty long and getting into long, fast boppish lines although--- very minor cavil, but one I think I've noticed in some other Marsalis performances --- the next to-last-phrase seemed to be winding up for a concluding exclamation point, but the last phrase didn't quite provide it, ending a tad abruptly.

Sound was good for the Lensic, where I've occasionally endured serious problems (a fabulous concert by pianist Kenny Werner a few years back was marred by extremly distorted and loud amplification of the piano). The LCJO brings their own sound-man with them (he could be heard encouraging the band and reacting to solos on occasion, a nice touch that helped to get the crowd into it too), and this is a very good thing. The mix, if perhaps a tad bright, was very clear. My only complaint is that it was overall too loud, hurting my ears on occasion and perhaps paradoxically, probably diminishing the impact a bit --- the incredible dynamic range of a live big band being an essential part of the experience. But that's a minor point---kudos to the LCJO for recognizing the importance of sound enough to bring their own sound man and equipment to provide clarity and the right balance.

I would have liked to hear just a little more classic swing. Say, one number by Basie or one of the other southwestern territory bands that had that powerful bluesy riffing thing.

Definitely go hear these guys if they come your way. The traveling version of the band is fifteen pieces---but that's a heck of a big sound when everyone is as together as this crew is. A taste of the real thing the way it used to be, plus evidence of people continuing to do vital work for big band, like the movement from Mr. Irby's suite.