by Marilyn Lester
There’s little argument that the music of Tin Pan Alley provides fertile territory for jazz musicians. In World on A String: Swinging Songs of Broadway, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis (JLCO) proved how versatile the American Songbook can be when arranged by a brace of top jazz men. The band has an energetic, modern, big brass sound; but weaving in and throughout are always variations in tonal brilliance provided by a multiplicity of orchestrations – enough to please any of the composers so honored in this program. The long-established ethic of the JLCO is egalitarian, allowing each member to lead and showcase his arranging and over-all musical talents.
The band led the program with “It’s Only a Paper Moon” arranged by alto saxophonist Sherman Irby. Irby and fellow alto sax man Ted Nash served as co-music directors for the evening Perhaps the most intriguing tune of the program was drummer Ali Jackson’s arrangement of the Lion King’s “Grasslands Chant,” which, with its African rhythms, had most of the members playing some form of percussion and changing up at intervals to their own chosen instruments. Ted Nash playing a piccolo added the sparkle this little woodwind is known for.
One of the assets of the JLCO is that although the configuration is that of a standard jazz orchestra, the musicians are multi-instrumentalists capable of bringing a wide array and variety of sounds to their arrangements. “Tradition” was a shining example of this versatility. Arranged by trombonist Chris Crenshaw, the tune featured a stand-out solo by fellow bone player Elliot Mason. The quirky was addressed with Sherman Irby’s arrangement of “Springtime for Hitler,” which flirted with Dixieland themes around the edges of swing. Ted Nash’s arrangement of “Send In the Clowns” achieved a lush, melodic sound, with a soulfully deep, warm tonality provided by Paul Nedzelas’s baritone clarinet. Equally beautifully melodic was tenor saxophone player Victor Goines’ jazz-waltz arrangement of “Hello Young Lovers.” Trumpet player Kenny Rampton’s Latinized “So in Love” – featuring solos by Victor Goines on clarinet and Rampton – evoked tropical palms swingin’ in a lively mambo-soaked breeze.
The JLCO was joined by young vocalist Kate Davis, who brings a variety of influences to her singing style. Davis is a multi-instrumentalist with a background in musical theater, pop and classical music. But it’s her mastery of the upright bass that most informs her vocals. Davis has a crisp, light, soprano with a delivery like the staccato plucking of the bass. With “Happy Talk,” arranged by trumpeter Marcus Printup, Davis demonstrated a strong set of vocal chords, handling the bop-infused arrangement easily. With the slow-tempo “Yesterdays,” lyrically arranged by bassist Carlos Henriquez, Davis’ strong vibrato emerges and was apparent. “Moonshine Lullaby,” arranged by tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding, allowed Davis to show some stylistic versatility in achieving a befitting 1940s intonation. A less successful vocalization was the somewhat pop, semi-symphonic arrangement by Ted Nash of “Somewhere,” which did not appear to be in Davis’ comfort zone. Davis has a unique, not unpleasant voice but needs work on stage presence, including more animation and more direct connection with her audience.
The finale of this bracing evening of Broadway was a very swinging Irby-arranged “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.” The tune was cheerfully up-tempo and lent itself handily for Davis to work in sync with the orchestra on excellent phrasing and tone. Other JLCO members who performed with outstanding musicality were Ryan Kisor on trumpet, Vincent Gardner on trombone and Dan Nimmer, the stalwart pianist who provided a number of notable, blue-ribbon solos.
World on A String: Swinging Songs of Broadway, April 14-16 at 8 pm
Jazz at Lincoln Center, Broadway at 60 Street, 212-721-6500, www.jazz.org