Wynton Marsalis proudly upholds the old traditions in jazz. Looking for musical action long after a concert ends, the trumpeter can often be found wherever players gather, ready to take on all comers at a late-night cutting contest. Friendly but deadly serious, such pugilistic jam sessions have played an essential role in the music's development since the early 20th century.
His competitive spirit doesn't seem to extend to the institution he founded and built into a cultural powerhouse, Jazz at Lincoln Center, and its resident orchestra, which he leads. While J@LC is still the most visible and prolific jazz organization in the world, with a growing international presence now under the auspices of former Yoshi's artistic director Jason Olaine, the rise of the SFJazz Center in San Francisco provides an invaluable West Coast counterweight to J@LC's 100-watt megaphone.
Marsalis brings the 15-piece J@LC Orchestra to Northern California for a series of March engagements, including a Kuumbwa Jazz Center concert Saturday at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, and an unprecedented sold out four-night run at the SFJazz Center March 20-23.
"We did three night run at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas in 2010, and two or three nights at the Chicago Symphony Center, but this is the most ambitious engagement we've done so far in the U.S.," said Marsalis, 52, in a recent phone conversation. "We're looking forward to it. We're big advocates for SFJazz. We've had the Collective out here (in New York) to play four or five times."
The collegial relationship between the organizations sometimes slips a bit, like in January when J@LC announced, and the New York Times reported, that it had received the largest single private donation to a jazz organization in history when J@LC board chairman Robert J. Appel pledged $20 million to the organization. Not so fast, said SFJazz. The New York Times had to run a correction in light of the $25 million contribution that paved the way for the SFJAZZ Center.
Big bucks bragging rights aside, Marsalis has every reason to feel like he's sitting in the catbird seat. His playing is as joyfully expressive and pungently virtuosic as ever, and the band he leads continues to be a marvel of precision, power and sheer exuberant swing.
He's found a cast of men (the band has yet to feature a female member) who are willing to channel their creative ambitions through the orchestra, which regularly commissions members to write compositions and arrangements. The combination of breathtakingly calibrated ensemble work with vivid soloists such as alto saxophonist Sherman Irby, trumpeter Marcus Printup, and the brilliant drummer Ali Jackson, make the orchestra a singularly potent organization.
"They write music, do arrangements, write originally compositions and consistently work under pressure," Marsalis says. "They can put together a show in two days if push comes to shove. We challenge each other. I play fourth trumpet and I follow Ryan Kisor all night, so there's no rest for me. My basic speech to the band is that at this stage of development it up to us to determine how great we can be. They've done such an unbelievable range of developing in the last five years, it's a blessing to be a part of if it."
Part of the band's strength stems from continuity. One major change is that 83-year-old baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley isn't making the tour. The orchestra's senior member by three decades and its last direct link to the Ellington Orchestra (Lincoln Center's original personnel drew heavily from the ranks of veteran Ellingtonians), the Scottish-born Temperley anchored the horn section and could be counted on to deliver a ravishing rendition of the Ellington ballad "The Single Petal of a Rose." A student of Temperley, Paul Nedzela has been covering the bari chair for the past year, since he made a highly lauded debut with the orchestra featured on Gerry Mulligan's "Lonesome Boulevard."
"Joe had a rough year with his health and it's best for him not to be on the road," Marsalis says. "Touring like we tour is not easy. He's always with us. He's been the center of our orchestra for a long time."
For the Santa Cruz date, which also features the Kuumbwa Jazz Honor Band led by pianist and composer Eddie Mendenhall performing outside the Civic Auditorium before the show, the orchestra is playing a program of Ellington, Monk and Chick Corea. Some might be surprised to find Corea's music in the orchestra's book, but the perception that Marsalis views the jazz continuum through a narrow lens is badly outdated.
"We have a lot of Chick's music arranged, 'Windows,' 'Humpty Dumpty,' 'What Game Should We Play Today,' 'Matrix,'" Marsalis says. "As a pianist and composer, he's one of the giants."
Contact Andrew Gilbert at email@example.com.