THE BEST OF DUKE ELLINGTON | New York, Jazz at Lincoln Center

“Blow your horn, Abdias. Blow your horn.” Young Abdias Armenteros has just just been laying down some scintillating sax in Duke Ellington’s ‘Ready Go’ from Toot Suite. Soaring held top notes provoke audience members to point their fingers in the air — the interplay with the rest of the Jazz at Lincoln Center band is masterful and Wynton Marsalis’s enthusiasm for just how well he blows that horn is right on point.

This Ellington program is the finale of what the MC describes as a ‘challenging but very rewarding season’. Well, what better way to close with a set list of challenging, rewarding masterpieces by Duke. They ‘start right’ with Take the A Train before Ted Nash’s saxophone animates Chelsea Bridge and Carlos Henriquez’s bass brings Jack the Bear to life. Three charts in and Wynton’s on the mic. Although some live records capture it, really one of the undeniable reasons that it pays to be in the Rose Theater to see JALC are Wynton’s ‘joining’ pieces of commentary. Witty, apt, melodious, steeped in history: these are moments embody the musical lineage of this institution. Ahead of Upper Manhattan Medical Group, Wynton brings the house down with a story about Dizzie Gillespie guesting on the original without pay and Duke explaining ‘ah, I could never afford to pay you what you’re worth’. It’s a delight.

The Marsalis family goes above and beyond on this particular evening in Portrait of Louis Armstrong. Having shouted out his brother Jason in the audience, Wynton then brings him on stage to sit in on the drums to ‘play in celebration of our father not making us do stuff’. However, if you’re into drums, the moment of the evening belongs to Obed Calvaire in Northern Lights. Thunderous mallets on the snare, earth-quaking crashes and cymbal rolls — Obed’s mastery of the full kit is all at once crazed, exploding with light and a poised frenzy of syncopation.

The community, collegiate, collaborating dimension of Jazz at Lincoln Center makes it an incredibly special band and it’s a heck of a thing to see/hear it come together on stage. Blues in Orbit includes an illumination of Joe Block’s journey to the orchestra and of Chris Crenshaw’s through-the-night transcription chops. Surely that’s one of the reasons that every visit is rejuvenating — it’s not just that you’re hearing Ellington’s genius at work, you’re getting the chance to enjoy the ingredients of multiple skilled hands shaping that work for the most joy-filled delivery. Bring on season 2022-23 — life is more vivid when Jazz at Lincoln Center are in full swing. Blowing horns and blowing minds. It’s all good.

Schedule of JALC’s weekly programs are here and their Spotify page is a well of goodness.

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