“Pops liked Chinese food!” mused Jazz at Lincoln Center a.d. Wynton Marsalis as he picked up a mute for “Cornet Chop Suey,” a Louis Armstrong composition that introduced to jazz the traditional “stop chorus.” The concert, featuring a plum contingent of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, marked a celebration of the Hot Five, the legendary Armstrong unit founded in 1925.
The group captured the flavor and tempo of a formative period in the history of jazz and a New Orleans legacy, despite a kind of mannered unity that fell short of exciting. There was a spirited sense of fun to be found, especially with the use of Wycliff Gordon’s oom-pah flavored tuba solos, the chop-chop of Don Vapple’s banjo and a repeated cymbal crash by the time keeper, Ali Jackson.
Trombonist Kid Ory, a former Armstrong employer and a member of the original Hot Five, wrote “Ory’s Creole Trombone” recreated by Gordon and Vincent Gardner with a great sense of swagger and swing.
For “Basin Street Blues” the durable Spencer Williams classic, pianist Jonathan Batiste set the pace with a gently poised solo on a celeste, followed by a sinuous Marsalis statement. “Melancholy Bloom” was set to a yawning trombone solo by Vincent Gardner. Marsalis recalled how the great King Oliver loved the use of a mute, prompting him to phrase the Melrose piece by a growling muted solo.
Armstrong is also credited for the introduction of scat singing to the jazz community. “Heebie Jeebies,” the group’s first runaway best seller, was inspired by a dance and kicked off by a two bass hit, Marsalis displayed the fun Satchmo found in expressing his art with horn and voice.
Concert peaked with the windup of “St. James Infirmary.” New Orleans pianist Batiste framed it with bold gospel strains. Marsalis, who adapts to any jazz style like an archeologist digging into the ancient past, embraced the Armstrong canon with fierce dedication and an historic knowingness.
Finale found Jackson’s sock cymbal marking time for “Weary Blues,” a lumbering Crescent City anthem to gut bucket jazz. Many tunes were labeled ‘blues’ whether they were blues or noted Marsalis, “because that’s what would sell!”