There comes a time in the career of every jazz musician when he wants to explore the romanticism of playing to the lush accompaniment of a string section. Celebrating 25 years as a premier soloist, Wynton Marsalis embraced the luxurious cushion of strings for a three-night stand at the home of Jazz at Lincoln Center. The result found a jazz giant nestled in a comfort zone.
Marsalis first traversed the terrain with his own “Hot House Flowers” and “The Midnight Blues,” but there was a new maturity and a weathered sense of emotional candor in his playing here. His phrasing and rhythmic structure is always changing. He explores the color patterns of a ballad with a knowing sense of insight and grace. He must hear the lyrics in his head, enabling him to reveal the deep hurt of a torch song with knowing insight.
The repertoire leaned toward the big hurt, beginning with Richard Rodgers’ “It Never Entered My Mind.” With a tone that was crystal clear and luxuriously bright, plus poised phrasing, Marsalis quickly set the pace for a sweet evening of melancholia. With “Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home,” his muted wah-wahs recalled legendary Ellington trumpeter Bubber Miley.
Walter Blanding, whose sweeping tenor added a velvety carpet for Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” provided seductive counterbalance. Blanding also played “Just Friends” as a gentle jump tune, accenting the dry austerity of a crisply muted Marsalis.
The string section, under the dancing direction of conductor Robert Sadin, provided a cushiony blanket for the ballads and the exotic arrangement of Juan Tizol’s “Caravan.” Bolstered by a well-tailored rhythm section, Marsalis took a wistful desert journey.
Jule Styne’s “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry” best summed up the concert’s mood. Punctuated with brittle, high-register short takes, the Marsalis horn proved one could be both wry and puckish when telling a sad tale.