JAMES ON JAZZ, By Robin James—Wynton Marsalis celebrates milestone birthday at Orchestra Hall

Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will play Orchestra Hall on October 2. -Photo by Clay McBride courtesy of jalc.org

Wynton Marsalis turns 50 on October 18, 2011. But before that personal milestone, he returns to Orchestra Hall on October 2 at 7 pm in celebration of his birthday. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra continues the celebration while on tour this fall.

This Minneapolis visit promises to offer new music, a retrospective of his music written for big band, and some timeless classics. According to a press release, “The orchestra may also perform the unique repertoire for which it is world renowned: modern jazz renditions of traditional favorites including tunes by Thelonious Monk; classic Blue Note Records selections by Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Jackie McLean, Lee Morgan [and] Joe Henderson; and modern compositions and arrangements by jazz contemporaries including members of the JLCO.”

Wynton Marsalis is artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and music director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Yet, he is so much more than that.

He is also the author of Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life (Random House, 2008) with Geoffrey C. Ward. In the book, Marsalis writes, “Of all the arts created in America, jazz says the most about us. As democracy created an explosion of personal creativity, it stands to reason that the definitive art of America would have an unprecedented roll call of creative artists. To understand them and their achievements is to be armed with examples of creativity, courage, and endurance that would serve us all well.”

I could go on and on with the accolades and list his new recordings and latest accomplishments, but let me stop and write instead what immediately comes to mind. Such as the fact that one of my all-time favorite songs written by Marsalis is “Sunflowers” from his Marciac Suite (Columbia 1999) album.

It’s a happy song. I’ve heard him play the song several times, including one time at the Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles back in 2002. Do I hope he plays “Sunflowers” when he comes to Minneapolis? You bet.

Marsalis didn’t play “Sunflowers” at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island that August weekend back in 2005 before Hurricane Katrina. He played a lot of other memorable songs that weekend, such as “Embraceable You” with Dave Brubeck on piano.

I fully expect for this upcoming performance at Orchestra Hall to be special as well. It is my hope that people who love jazz will come out not just to celebrate his birthday, but to celebrate all that he has done for jazz and all that he continues to do to help keep the music alive. But if you don’t make it, it’s ok. Be there in spirit.

Better yet, listen to some of his recorded music. Just the other day, I ran across my copy of Herbie Hancock: A Jazz Collection (Columbia, 1991) and remembered Marsalis plays along with Hancock on “’Round Midnight.” Ron Carter is on bass, Tony Williams plays drums. What a beautiful tune. Hancock will play solo piano at Orchestra Hall soon, so look out for him, too.

It was back in October 2006 that I interviewed Grandmixer DXT for EQ magazine, where he talked about working with Hancock on the legendary song “Rockit.” Earlier this month, Hancock and Wayne Shorter performed a duet at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz 25th Anniversary Gala on Sept. 12. Pianist Kris Bowers from Los Angeles won first prize in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition on the same day.

On September 26 and 27, Jason Marsalis will be at the Dakota in “A Celebration of Lionel Hampton.” He plays drums and vibes. If you haven’t heard Jason’s album, Music Update (Louisiana Music Factory), you ought to. It’s really something special. He sounds better than ever on an album that flows the way an album should from beginning to end.

More music to feed the spirit

Musical nourishment is something we all need.

I’m excited to know that pianist, composer and bandleader Vijay Iyer will be at the Walker Art Center for a mini-festival come March 2012. We exchanged emails a while back. He definitely has one of the brightest minds in all of jazz. The festival is being billed as “The Sound of Surprise: A Vijay Iyer Mini Festival.”
Did anyone catch Tony Bennett and Queen Latifah singing “Who Can I Turn To?” on America’s Got Talent? What a performance. They sound so good together. In fact, it was one of the best duets that I’ve heard in a long time.

Musical nourishment is something we all need.

I’m happy to know Roy Haynes has a new album, Roy-alty (Dreyfus). I first read about it at NPR.org.

The significance of these upcoming artist visits and current music means this music goes on. Little Jimmy Scott once told me, “This music must go on.” And on it goes…

Robin James welcomes reader responses to jamesonjazz@spokesman-recorder.com.