There’s a new festival in town — sort of — for the 2001 Verizon Music Festival is really a cobbled-together patchwork of already scheduled concerts, normal club dates and attractive freebies (George Wein intends to produce the whole thing himself next year). Moreover, fate decreed that a good deal of the proceeds would be donated to the United Way’s Sept. 11th and Emergency Response Funds. So basically, the first edition of the fest became a promissory gesture of good will — and fortunately, it managed a distinguished kickoff Friday night with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and its ever-in-motion creative spark plug, Wynton Marsalis.
Let’s face it: You can forgive all of Marsalis’ hotly debatable proclamations on jazz history and overreaching ambitions just to hear him play the trumpet these days. He came marching out all by himself, swinging humorously on a blues tune with a hat-shaped mute, followed by the rest of the band. Whenever he soloed, he would preach, laugh, tell a story, totally in command of his horn and what he wanted to say with it. He was something to behold.
Marsalis is emulating Duke Ellington in more ways than just borrowing his voicing, for the crack Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra is a personal vehicle for his composing experiments as well as a repertory band. But this time, instead of the unedited sprawl of “All Rise” at Hollywood Bowl two weeks before, Marsalis selected his spots shrewdly.
There was a wonderfully wild excerpt from his “Blood on the Fields” oratorio, with the saxes firing off in sequence and trumpeters Ryan Kisor and Seneca Black dueling away. As the penultimate number, Wynton chose the finale from one of his better longform pieces “Big Train” — the best part, actually — with its hushed, hypnotic, chanting and dissonant simulated blasts of a train whistle. Indeed, within the context of the verbatim treatment of the original “Take the ‘A’ Train” chart, Charles Mingus’ querulous “Dizzy Moods” and the loopy unison lines of Thelonious Monk, these Marsalis excerpts fit comfortably into the tradition and held their own.
Finally, in a perfectly timed surprise encore, down came a flag and out came a jumping swing treatment of “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Wherever he plays, Marsalis has developed a showman’s knack for accurately reading the mood of his audience and his times.
The evening, and festival, got off to an ominous start with a poorly amplified set from singer Sandra Booker, who distanced herself increasingly from notions of correct pitch as the set unfolded. But the Lincoln Center band quickly set things right.