Dallas — The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis is so far from the usual big-band cliché that it’s mind-blowing. A dozen of the finest jazz horn players in the nation performed with graceful vigor, enabled by an acoustic rhythm section of piano, bass and drums that imparted support and swing. At Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center on Thursday night as part of Dallas Symphony Orchestra Christmas Pops!, they enlivened tunes from the mid-1500s to modern, with exceedingly imaginative arrangements mostly generated by band members.
Yet the show did not start off promisingly. First up was a Count Basie arrangement of “Jingle Bells,” well played but… yawn. Was Wynton really the stodgy jazz traditionalist some music wags make him out to be? The answer, as shown by the next number, was a resounding no. “We Three Kings,” as inventively arranged by band member Ted Nash, brought the orient of the lyrics back into the song. Horns evoked the sounds of camels and other desert animals, and the rhythm had the feel of a caravan rolling up and down sand dunes.
Another astounding piece was Vincent Gardner’s arrangement of the toy solider section in Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker that made Ellington’s version seem stale. A truly jazzified interpretation of the melody, it was so creatively interpreted that it would disappear for moments and then resurge in a way that the audience loved. With a tremendous low-end sax solo from Walter Blanding and sweet clarinet musings from Victor Goines.
“What Child is This?” was also enlivened by a virtuosic and highly modern arrangement by Goines that deconstructed it into deep New Orleans style syncopation. The band swelled into the chorus with so much passion it made you want to cry. The original melody, “Greensleeves,” dates back to mid-1500s as a folk tune and was given lyrics in 1865, explained Marsalis. That span and flexibility captures in a song the phenomenal nature of jazz.
The over-the-top excellence of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra was showcased no place better than in their treatment of African-American spirituals. The historical context was a boon for Marsalis, whose deep love of music history infused his emcee remarks. Chris Crenshaw’s passion for his faith flavored his arrangement so much it induced chills. The emotion was balanced by superb musicality, with nuanced trombone work and vigorous, rapid-fire saxophone solos that were almost like challenges.
Guest vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant brought her soulful yet avant-garde artistry to “Mary Had a Baby,” and a series of pop tunes. The horns did a marvelous job playing under her in a crisp rendition of “Meet Me in St. Louis”—a perfect merger of big band and vocalist. A similar fusion occurred, but with rhythm section only, on “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” imparting an intimate, nightclub feel.
Salvant showed her true depth on “It’s Easy to Blame the Weather.” Enabled by Sherman Irby’s arrangement, which was perfection itself, she took that Sammy Cohen fluff ball, cast aside the famous Billie Holiday version, and made it her own. At times she was lost, in the best possible way, in her scat singing expression. Her pure tones melted into Irby’s rich, clear saxophone to create the audio version of a Belgian truffle.
After keeping himself under wraps all evening, Marsalis pulled out all his high-note trumpet skills in Irby’s arrangement of “Oh Tannenbaum.” Played at almost Dixieland speed, solos came and went rapidly. Even the baritone sax player, Paul Nedzela, got some. It all came together in a long, lush, full finish where all chops were laid out on the stage. Smiles erupted around the band, as well as the Meyerson, from the boundless joy of it.
VIDEO: “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” with Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Cecile McLorin Salvant.