With a roaring Dizzy Gillespie overture, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra set the pace for the annual all-star gala. Leader, artistic director and concert host Wynton Marsalis confessed to big bands’ dubious appeal to him as a youth. Now an elder statesman and leader of the most acclaimed band in the land, he paid tribute to the “best of the bands” and prefaced a forthcoming weekend tribute to Count Basie, Benny Goodman and the Dorsey brothers.
From the Glenn Miller classic “String of Pearls” and the enveloping mellowness of Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll” to Machito’s urgently infectious “Mambo Inn,” the band played with unharnessed energy and passion. Romping solo contributions by tenor man Walter Blanding, trumpeter Ryan Kisor and the cleansing texture of the Ted Nash’s alto sax heightened the slate.
Sultry and sinewy, an elegant Eartha Kitt slithered to center stage for a reprise of her trademark holiday hit, “Santa Baby.” In a velvety green gown that was slit to the hip, Kitt, at age 80, teased front row patrons with her Christmas wish list. Kitt followed the fun by performing “St. Louis Blues” with all the longing and yearning of love lost intact.
Fantasia offered a poignantly fervent “Summertime” with the support of Marsalis’ growling trumpet, and with the band in hot pursuit, warbled Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” swinging freely with a clarion shout and plenty of pliant body language.
With Vegas swagger and poise, Paul Anka offered his Sinatra-style take on Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life.” Celebrating 50 years in the business, the singer-composer sang a reworked take on his old chart hit “You Are My Destiny.”
The concert honored the memory of the late newsman Ed Bradley with a posthumous award for his leadership. Film clips of Bradley interviews included appearances by George Burns, Lena Horne and Ray Charles. Bradley’s widow cited her husband as the voice of Jazz at Lincoln Center and recalled his personal credo: “Music is my bliss.”