Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra at Orchestra Hall (Live Stream)

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) with Wynton Marsalis has performed annually through the University Musical Society in Ann Arbor for the past several years. It had not played at Detroit’s Orchestra Hall under the auspices of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in a decade, however, until March 5 and 6 of this year. What a special treat it was to have this modern champion of the Armstrong, Ellington and Basie swing traditions gracing the Orchestra Hall stage once again in one of the world’s great jazz cities. I was able to enjoy this March 5, 2021, concert streamed for $12 from dso.org, with repeat viewings permitted for a few days after. Hopefully it will be archived on the site for a while.

For jazz lovers in southeast Michigan who have been starved for live jazz under Covid-19 restrictions, and for those remembering obituaries of musicians lost to the virus in the last year, this concert was a soothing balm to the sprit. Seeing and hearing this group of JLCO veterans, plus special guests Detroit saxophonists James Carter and Kasan Belgrave, are delicious toppings to this dazzling jazz sundae. Michiganders Michael Dease (trombone) and trumpeter Kris Johnson were in the ensemble as well but with less solo space. In his introduction, Marsalis said it was the first time JLCO had played together live for a whole year, as they began a week-long residency with the DSO. He wryly added, “We will try to swing, no matter what!”

The group began with a Jimmy Mundy composition played by Basie, “Sleepwalker’s Serenade.” Marsalis led off with a swinging muted solo that was truly heart-felt, and there was no denying he had missed playing. He was happy to be back in the D, even with a virtual audience, judging by the big smile on his face. Trombonist Chris Crenshaw then caroused with a growl solo, followed by saxophonist Ted Nash and the fabulous Dan Nimmer on piano, with great chording and a mellow stride ride for a super swinging sleepwalk. But not to worry, all was safe in this mellow serenade. Next up in this great mix of tunes was the Ted Nash arrangement of Lee Morgan’s “Ceora,” from the album Cornbread. Lots of danceable solos on this one, notably Nash’s lilting flute.

“The Crave,” a Jelly Roll Morton piece, was next, arranged by bassist Carlos Henriquez, a driving dance tune — with Dan Nimmer vamping, Obed Calvaire keeping time with mallets and sticks, and Vincent Gardner blowing a sweet sax with a big joyous sound. A nice thing about this size group is that it offers several possible small groups within it. This exciting aspect of the big band setup allowed these fine musicians to show the joy they have playing together after a year when they could not.

Next was the James Weldon Johnson-inspired number “God’s Trombone,” a plea, a cry, a moan, yearning past this tragic moment for a better day. Chris Crenshaw did his best in a fine call-and-response with the band. James Carter tore it up on his baritone sax solo. This was followed by another up-tempo piece, “Free to Be,” with trombonist Chris Crenshaw, Marsalis, and Dan Nimmer doing some piano runs that reminded me of Renee Rosnes and her expansive sound. Here, Marsalis was outstanding, working the high register, with Calvaire pushing him hard on drums, and Nimmer running the board with intensity to spare.

Walter Blanding’s tenor sax slowed things down on a beautiful Wayne Shorter piece called “Contemplation,” arranged by Sherman Irby, full of historical references and style. Nimmer’s vamping piano, Henrique’s bass, and Calvaire’s brushes guided us down many streams of tragedy and celebration. The final piece, Sonny Rollins’ “Freedom Suite”, arranged by Blanding with quick back-and-forth jubilation and happening solos by Kasan Belgrave and some honking by the inimitable James Carter, put an unmistakable Detroit stamp on the closing tune. Marsalis gave special thanks to these two men, and called Kasan’s dad, the great Marcus Belgrave, “a man dipped in fried soul.” Then he thanked everyone involved and said it was “important to be with each other playing this music.”

Check it out if you can; this year-long JLCO reunion was worth the wait.