Jazz at Lincoln Center is doing as much as any other institution in America to preserve and promote jazz music. In addition to the regular program Jazz Night in America in conjunction with NPR and WBGO, there’s the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the institution’s Blue Engine Records through which it makes recordings of the center’s performances available to the public.
The latest release from Blue Engine is a set of studio recordings of works that have been performed over the past few years in the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. The concept is to have modern composers create works based on visual artworks by modern artists that inspire them, and then present those musical compositions as the artwork is projected in the auditorium. Jazz and Art is a program of 10 works by seven contemporary composers.
It’s hard to imagine a better program for lovers of big-band jazz music. This is a top-notch ensemble of world-class musicians under the management of artistic director Wynton Marsalis, performing jazz compositions by world-class musicians and composers, performed in a thoughtfully designed space created just for that purpose, and recorded with great artistic and technical integrity. Plus it’s an opportunity to teach and learn about some great modern artists, and share in the way their visual art inspired these composers.
Although it’s played by a large ensemble that some may think of as old-fashioned, this music is as richly varied as the artworks that inspired it and the backgrounds of its composers. The composers include American guitarists Bill Frisell and Doug Wamble (who has worked extensively with Ken Burns on his documentaries); Vincent Gardner and Chris Crenshaw, trombonists for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra; Papo Vazquez, the Grammy-winning Puerto Rican-American trombonist and composer; American saxophonist Tim Armacost, best known for his integration of Indian rhythmic concepts into his jazz compositions; and Jazz at Lincoln Center alto saxophonist Sherman Irby.
There’s a lot to explore here. A couple of early favorites are the closer “Twilight Sounds” by Irby and “Air, Earth, Fire, Water” by guest trombonist Papo Vazquez. The former is inspired by African-American abstract expressionist Norman Lewis’s painting Twilight Sounds. It’s a major ensemble work with one foot in the swing era and another in early bop. It’s full of stuttering tempo changes deftly kept by bassist Carlos Henriquez and drummer Ali Jackson, with a deeply abstract bass clarinet solo by Victor Goines. And a freely improvised section before a Marsalis solo in the coda. Vazquez’s piece, subtitled “Orisha Medley” is a long-form tribute to Wifredo Lam, a Cuban artist of African and Chinese descent. It features a guest African drum ensemble playing a dramatic intro on African drums and deep brass, which resolves into an urbane Afro-Cuban swing with an exciting piano-trombone duet backed by polyrhythmic percussion throughout.
Doug Wamble’s three superb pieces pay tribute to early American modernist painter Stuart Davis. They include the Latin-tinged “Mellow Pad” in which trombonist Vincent Gardner tosses off quote from the songbook; the deeply swinging gospel of “Garage Lights” with a soaring Marcus Printup trumpet solo; and the swinging straight-ahead piano of Dan Nimmer in “New York.”
Romare Bearden’s huge multi-media drawing “The Block” is a tribute to Harlem and Chris Crenshaw’s song of that title is a tribute to Bearden and could also be heard as a tribute to Ellington; midway it slows to a luxurious stroll with a sexy solo by tenorist Victor Goines, probably the longest solo on this album, before jumping back to an uptempo coda.
The most abstract jam is “Blue Twirl,” Vincent Gardner’s tribute to a work by that name by Sam Gilliam, the most abstract of the artists represented on the album. The lengthy intro features swirling and twirling flute and muted trumpet over deep droning from bass, piano and low brass and reeds, which eventually resolves into a driving swing piece with solos by Marsalis, alto saxophonist Ted Nash, and a strongly bop-influenced turn by trombonist Elliot Mason.
The bulk of the artists represented in this show are African-American. The exceptions are the Dutch geometric abstractionist Piet Mondrian and the American landscape painter Winslow Homer. Bill Frisell represents Homer with two short pieces, the lightly swinging “Homer’s Waltz” and the jitterbuggy swinger “Homer’s Blues” with wailing muted trumpet by Marsalis. Tim Armacost, inspired by Mondrian’s ideas about universal repost found in geometric forms, has the penultimate track, “The Repose In All Things.” After a majestic, chorale-like intro on brass and winds, it kicks into hard-bopping gear and features a strong alto solo by Irby.
It is indeed a lot to digest, particularly if you care to look into the biographies and works of the artists who inspired these works. If this piques your interest at all, it’s available on all digital platforms. Here’s a teaser video from Jazz At Lincoln Center.
(Blue Engine Records, 2019)