IOWA CITY — Christmas just got a whole lot cooler.
Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, longtime favorites of Hancher and its audiences, put the merry and bright into 75 minutes of holiday favorites during the first of two near-capacity concerts Saturday night (12/7/13) at Iowa City’s West High School auditorium.
Go to any concert this time of year, and you’ll hear the same songs — but you’ll never hear them like this. Marsalis and his 15 masterful musicians take every tempo, every melody, every familiar lick and give them a peppermint twist through the jazz spectrum. Hot, cool, progressive — every flavor becomes something to savor, laced with impeccable arrangements and precision artistry.
“The Nutcracker” party-goers could never dance to the syncopated beat of “Peanut Brittle Brigade” — Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s take on Tchaikovsky’s majestic “March.” From the downbeat dissonance, this holiday sweet becomes a swinging suite of solos and perfectly melded ensemble sounds from trumpets, trombones, saxes, piano, double bass and percussion. Some smokin’ tenor sax brings it all home.
The stellar group’s Big Band Holiday collection runs the gamut of titles and styles from piccolo and high clarinet shimmers on “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” to a marriage of rockabilly, boogie and Dixieland on the grand finale of “Jingle Bells.” And no gentlemen were resting when the familiar strains of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” were bent, twisted and embellished with walking bass, crashing brass and swinging saxes.
Forget the lutes and flutes, too. “Greensleeves,” with its updated “What Child is This” lyrics, leaps a couple of light-years ahead with a bit of bossa nova from percussion, bass and piano, fueled by big band brass and plenty of sass from guest vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant.
She’s belle of the evening’s ball. Looking all hip and trendy with her close-cropped hair, white glasses, black-and-white sleeveless dress and red heels — she is in a class all by herself. A vocal chameleon, her artistry comes from an interpretation where she switches instantly from a meek, breathy, youthful tone to a deep, rich rumbling rope of molasses, slipping easily through several octaves.
She runs the full range of her motions on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” beginning with the whisper of romance before cutting loose with the blast of bright trumpets, plumbing the depths of her range, rising back to shimmering heights. She’s just so unusual, adding almost a wailing shriek to “Good Morning Blues,” as she implores Santa to bring her baby back.
Santa definitely has a brand new bag with Marsalis and crew. It’s basically impossible to single anyone out for individual kudos, since all are at the top of their game with improvised solos that rise above the tight ensemble work. Marsalis is one of the world’s foremost trumpet players, but so is Sioux City native Ryan Kisor, who proves his mettle on “White Christmas” and “Good Morning Blues.”
Marsalis, nevertheless, is the light stringing it all together, giving his audiences wonderful little snippets of musical history real and imagined, with a gentle, easy conversational style. His colleagues cheer each other on through their stellar solos and tease each other back and forth with good-natured banter as easy and loose as their music is tight and crisp.
Thank you, Hancher, for this best kind of season’s greeting.