Jazz at Lin­coln Cen­ter back from S. Africa

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - A+E - Howard Re­ich Howard Re­ich is a Tri­bune critic. hre­[email protected]­bune.com

West, Dizzy (Gille­spie) from the South, Duke Elling­ton from the East­ern seaboard and Louis Arm­strong, of course, from the Deep South,” adds Marsalis. “It was the im­por­tant work of cul­tural am­bas­sador­ship, so we just play songs from their canon.”

But why did jazz take on that sig­ni­fy­ing role around the globe?

“Be­cause it’s the de­fin­i­tive fine art of the coun­try,” says Marsalis. “That means that, for some rea­son, it was able to en­cap­su­late our fun­da­men­tals into its fun­da­men­tals.”

Mean­ing that jazz in­trin­si­cally re­flected this coun­try’s found­ing values — specif­i­cally democ­racy and in­di­vid­ual free­dom. Un­like clas­si­cal mu­sic, in which mu­si­cians mostly are bound to play what’s in the score, jazz since its in­cep­tion more than a cen­tury ago en­cour­aged in­di­vid­u­als to in­vent deeply per­son­al­ized mu­sic on the spot, al­beit within the con­text of a given com­po­si­tion.

In jazz, “in­di­vid­u­al­ity comes with im­pro­vi­sa­tion,” says Marsalis. “But there’s also the free­dom that comes with swing. So the bass part is not a slave part — it’s not just the same thing re­peated over and over again. The bass part moves around, and it is forced to bal­ance with the cym­bal, which is the high­est pitch. So the high­est is forced to play on ev­ery beat with the low­est pitch. … It re­quires in­ter­ac­tion. … We have to work with each other in a com­mon space.”

Which surely de­fines democ­racy when it’s work­ing as in­tended.

“And then the blues aes­thetic gives us the type of op­ti­mism that sur­vives, that’s deeper than hope,” adds Marsalis. “So no mat­ter how bad things get, there’s still a thing in­side of us that says, ‘Well, we have a be­lief that when we strip ev­ery­thing away, that be­lief will al­low us to tran­scend the mo­ment we’re in.’ ”

The African Amer­i­can cul­ture that in­vented jazz — through the ground­break­ing work of in­no­va­tors such as pi­anist-com­poser Jelly Roll Mor­ton and trum­peters such as Arm­strong and Buddy Bolden and — clearly was tran­scend­ing a bleak chap­ter in Amer­i­can life: slav­ery.

Jazz at Lin­coln Cen­ter’s sec­ond Chicago con­cert, on Nov. 16, will ex­plore the “South African Song­book,” with guest vo­cal­ists Me­lanie Scholtz and Vuyo So­tashe. The pro­gram holds par­tic­u­lar sig­nif­i­cance for the ensem­ble, which last month com­pleted its first tour South African tour.

“It was great — a lot more peo­ple knew the mu­sic of the cats in the band than we thought,” says Marsalis of a visit that was billed as hon­or­ing “the 25th an­niver­sary of South African democ­racy.”

“The peo­ple were very (so­cially) con­scious be­cause of their strug­gles … and also very play­ful,” says Marsalis. “Even though they have the same ur­ban prob­lems ev­ery­body has, they didn’t have the same type of hos­til­ity we have to­ward each other, and it was pal­pa­ble. You could feel it even when you got into the air­port.”

Marsalis and col­leagues also were struck by the level of vir­tu­os­ity and jazz eru­di­tion among their South African coun­ter­parts, cit­ing above all pi­anist Nduduzo Makhathini, who, as it hap­pens, will re­lease his Blue Note Records de­but next year.

“Man, this guy can play,” says Marsalis, who also was im­pressed by the work of com­poser Thandi Ntuli and sax­o­phon­ist McCoy Mru­bata.

Above all, though, it was “the spirit of the peo­ple” that left the deep­est im­pres­sion.

“Ev­ery­body in the band was say­ing, ‘Damn — the spirit!’ ” Marsalis says. “It was a spir­i­tual thing. It’s in­ter­est­ing how their jazz is con­nected to the free­dom as­pect of our jazz.”

Look­ing ahead, Marsalis sees Jazz at Lin­coln Cen­ter’s Blue En­gine Records la­bel as crit­i­cally im­por­tant to the or­ga­ni­za­tion, with plans to “put out 100 records in five years,” he says.

To date its discog­ra­phy in­cludes “Big Band Hol­i­days II,” “Jazz and Art,” “Wyn­ton Marsalis’ Swing Sym­phony” (with the St. Louis Sym­phony Orches­tra), “Bolden: The Orig­i­nal Sound­track to the Ma­jor Mo­tion Pic­ture,” “Betty Carter: The Mu­sic Never Stops,” “Una Noche Con Ruben Blades,” “Hand­ful of Keys: The Mu­sic of John Lewis,” “The Abyssinian Mass,” “Live in Cuba” and “Car­los Hen­riquez: The Bronx Pyra­mid.”

Up­com­ing record­ings will fea­ture com­po­si­tions by JLCO mem­bers Vic­tor Goines, Ted Nash, Sher­man Irby and oth­ers.

“This is go­ing to be the high­light of ev­ery­thing I ever tried to do,” says Marsalis.

Quite a state­ment from the man who co-founded Jazz at Lin­coln Cen­ter and penned the first jazz com­po­si­tion to win a Pulitzer Prize, “Blood on the Fields.” Did Jazz at Lin­coln Cen­ter cre­ate Blue En­gine Records in or­der to break free of record in­dus­try con­trol?

“No, not re­ally,” says Marsalis. “It’s our in-house la­bel. It’s not like we are a (free-stand­ing) record la­bel — we’re still what we are.

“It’s just that we’re in­ter­ested in these re­sources be­ing put to peo­ple. … We want peo­ple to hear the mu­sic be­cause we’re ad­vo­cates.

“At the end of the day, we are a so­cial-help or­ga­ni­za­tion.”

But in this case, the help comes in a form that makes you want to tap your foot.

The Jazz at Lin­coln Cen­ter Orches­tra with Wyn­ton Marsalis per­forms “Jazz Am­bas­sadors” at 8 p.m. Nov. 15 and “South African Song­book” at 8 p.m. Nov. 16 in Orches­tra Hall at Sym­phony Cen­ter, 220 S. Michi­gan Ave.; ticket prices vary; 312-294-3000 or www.cso .org.


Wyn­ton Marsalis with the Jazz at Lin­coln Cen­ter Orches­tra, shown in Orches­tra Hall in 2016. They re­turn this week.

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