Wynton Marsalis describes the big jazz band as “the American orchestra.” It’s an intriguing and, in many ways, definitive identification of the instrumental collective that has been a foundation ensemble of American jazz and popular music for more than 80 years. Like the classical orchestra, it is an ensemble that has served as the expressive musical vehicle for a particular culture -- in this case, American rather than European. The performance by Marsalis’ 15-piece Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday night was a dynamic, living color display of the multifaceted meaning of his description.
The orchestra’s opening two selections, one with classical roots, the other based on a traditional song, immediately revealed a tiny sampling of the vast, far too rarely heard, existing repertoire of music available for the American orchestra’s instrumentation of trumpets, trombones, saxophones and rhythm section. George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” performed by the orchestra in a richly atmospheric arrangement by Billy Strayhorn, was a stunning expansion of the jazz elements coursing through the original, with the dark, evocative baritone saxophone of Joe Temperley leading the way. Oliver Nelson’s jaunty take on the traditional “Down by the Riverside” came alive via a rhythmically energized, deceptively complex jazz development of a familiar tune. As in the “Rhapsody,” the collective passages of “Riverside” opened up for expansive soloing, highlighted by the back-and-forth duo improvisation from trumpeters Sean Jones and Marcus Printup.
A pair of new compositions by saxophonist Ted Nash added a different perspective -- the American orchestra’s potential as the vehicle for new works. Two movements from Nash’s year-old seven-part suite -- “Portrait in Seven Shades” -- offered pieces inspired by Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso. Each had its impressionistic aspects, the former’s slippery passages and airy dissonances suggesting Dali’s surrealistic landscapes and limpid images, the latter filled with the jarring clashes of Cubist angles and colors.
Two more American orchestra perspectives were added with Benny Carter’s lovely “Again and Again,” a gorgeously intimate jazz ballad featuring the lyrical alto saxophone playing of Sherman Irby and -- in direct contrast -- a high-spirited segment from Marsalis’ first jazz Mass, “Abyssinian 200.”
But the most unpredictable expression of American orchestra versatility arrived with the appearance of Willie Nelson. In an unexpected example of serendipity, the cancellation of Natalie Cole’s performance opened the way for a live presentation of the musical encounter between Marsalis and Nelson chronicled on their just-released CD, “Two Men With the Blues.”
That’s an unlikely pairing, and its success was largely based upon the integration of Nelson into the flawless backing of various Lincoln Center orchestra ensembles. In five songs from the album, reaching from the irresistible blues of “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It” and “Caldonia” to the sophistication of “Stardust,” Nelson’s timeless, beyond-style vocals were framed by a series of evocative combinations, from the full orchestra to a New Orleans-style small band. The set’s peak was Marsalis’ Louis Armstrong-inspired solo on “Stardust.”
The musically diverse evening opened with a busy set by virtuosic young pianist Eldar Djangirov, who offered his best playing in those passages that allowed some imaginative lyricism to sneak past his flying fingers.