Gala events are often so rife with back-patting that it’s amazing anyone has a hand free to play a note between trading of kudos. But the opening event of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Fall Season — and a centennial celebration of the life of Gotham-bred jazz legend Benny Carter, a regular at the festival until he retired from live performance in the late ’90s — kept the focused fixed laser-like on Carter’s own brilliance, offering the late performer a few spiritual bear hugs in the process.
Squeezing eight decades of passion and innovation into a program running just a tad over 2½ hours would certainly seem to be a daunting task, and there’s no doubting that some members of the aud shuffled from the hall disappointed at not having heard a particular fave. Still, the balance — both sonically and spiritually — that the ensemble evinced over the course of the relatively chronological program was as intellectually impressive as it was, well, swinging.
Much of the program’s early stretches were given over to Carter’s swing-era compositions — works that stretched the fairly rigid boundaries of the era by introducing more ornate call-and-response interludes and luxuriating in the lushness of multiple reed and brass players, often layering four and five trumpet or trombone players as was the case here. Early set was split between Carter’s originals (like the jumpy, early “Symphony in Riffs”) and his arrangements of better-known material (which, on a whirling-dervish “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over,” came across a bit more immediately.
Perhaps most fascinating were the pieces drawn from the end of Carter’s long compositional career — vignettes that were admittedly inhabited by nuances of nostalgia, particularly “Again and Again,” crafted shortly before the musician’s death — as well as those that incorporated vocals, chiefly Cynthia Scott’s bossa-nova “Only Trust Your Heart.”
NBC anchor Brian Williams proved to be a witty, unobtrusive host, relating memories from Carter’s many contemporaries rather than insert himself into the storyline — although a riff about his first Gotham apartment being a good bit smaller than guest trombonist Wycliffe Gordon drew a few chuckles. To a person, the members of the orchestra eschewed flash. Sure, there were a handful of edgy solos, but given Carter’s propensity for architecturally-perfect arrangements, most deferred to the good of the group — highly-billed Wynton Marsalis, for instance, held down his chair in the back row with stolid grace. And given the way Benny Carter lived his life, it’s appropriate that grace would be the order of the day.