Hearing the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra play classic big-band charts is a lot like hearing the Chicago Symphony play Beethoven — a sleek, accomplished, state-of-the-art music museum for the digital age. Whether you’re actually hearing what Beethoven or Count Basie heard is, of course, another question, but the Lincoln Center group is closing the gap to a remarkable degree.
Formed in 1988 as the core of the Jazz at Lincoln Center program, we first heard the orchestra here two summers ago, meticulously re-creating the sounds of Duke Ellington’s bands at the Hollywood Bowl. Since then, it has branched out in all directions from the ’20s to the ’60s, attracting a sprinkling of marquee names to sit in the ranks. The orchestra can be heard to good effect on two tracks of a just-out live compact discc, “Jazz at Lincoln Center Presents: The Fire of the Fundamentals” (Columbia).
Though the personnel changes considerably with each appearance, the orchestra remains a precision-tooled instrument — often just a wee bit too precise. At this point, they sound more at ease with the shaded colors of Ellington than the uninhibited swing of Count Basie, where the unbending ensemble riffs can’t cut loose.
But they can do a bop chart like Dizzy Gillespie’s breakneck “Things to Come” or Charles Mingus’ “Boogie Stop Shuffle” with naturally felt fire, and they often dig beyond the Ellingtonian hits into fascinating obscurities like “Apes and Peacocks” and “Magnolias Dripping With Molasses.”
The big focus of attention at the Wadsworth Thursday was on rocketing young tenor sax star Joshua Redman, whose well-organized, to-the-point, always-musical solos shone in “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” and “Boogie Stop Shuffle.” He took on the daunting challenge of 25 choruses in “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” with sly patience, showmanship and a dusky tone worthy of Paul Gonsalves. For a change, the hype is true; Redman is the real McCoy.
Trumpeter Jon Faddis brashly waved the high-wire Gillespie flag repeatedly, yet when engaged in a blues cutting contest with Marcus Printup, it was Faddis who ultimately showed more poise. Marcus Roberts, now designated as the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra’s music director, displayed some verbal wit as well as his usual accomplished poly-styled piano. And Milt Grayson, a walking time-warp, continues to ooze his honeyed basso all over tunes like “Drop Me Off at Harlem.”