Big Band Holidays Offers the Sweetest, Kindest, and Best in Human Spirit at Jazz at Lincoln Center
By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, December 15, 2017
For all that it’s alleged to be Central Command for the War on Christmas, New York City sure goes ape for the holidays. In the month of December alone, New York probably fields more performances of Messiah than South Dakota has people, and out of all that holy ruckus, no celebration is more reverent, more profound, more purely attuned to all that’s sweetest, kindest, and best in the human spirit, than Jazz at Lincoln Center’s “Big Band Holidays” concerts, which have brought joy to the world every year since the whole operation was founded, thirty years ago.
In our tortured era, it takes something really special to make a packed house just sit back and smile for two hours, but when you run into virtuosity that’s exceptional even in this town, coupled with on-the-spot, in-the-moment musical thinking of a very high order, you’ve got something really, truly special: fear falls away, doubts cease, and peace on Earth sets in, at least for 120 minutes in the Rose Theater. You can see it in the faces onstage: when one of these folks gets up and takes a solo, the rest of them lean in, and if the soloist really takes off, everybody else looks up and starts thinking it out with them, step by step, and when they’re really inspired, the rubbernecking starts, and when they really, really catch fire, the whole crew kicks in and puts some kind of uproarious Amen on it. Come, Creator Spirit!
That’s not just metaphor: this kind of music-making is just like good preaching—improvisatory, yes; spontaneous, yes; but it starts from power, and it never stops building on the through-line, especially with people like these in the house. Catherine Russell and Kenny Washington sang. Wynton Marsalis emceed. He also played. The arrangements were home-cooked—literally, in the case of Carlos Henriquez’s take on Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride,” which was whinny-free because, as Marsalis pointed out, “There are no horses in the Bronx.” The resident orchestra played, and if this is not the bestest band what am, I am a Dutchman and not the simple Baptist boy from Georgia that I have heretofore claimed to be.
That is all you really need to know, but if you insist on specifics, here are only a few of the many that I could detain you with….
Russell did “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with words that didn’t make it into Meet Me in St. Louis or into any of the subsequent published versions, because they fairly ache with uncertainty, loss, and all those other hard things that seem, paradoxically, like heart’s balm in times like these. Sherman Irby’s long solo in his own arrangement of “Cool Yule” could easily stand as a graduate-course in saxophone-playing, all by itself. In Ernie Wilkins’s famous take on “Jingle Bells”—the only off-campus item on the program—Ted Nash and Paul Nedzela, on alto and baritone sax, respectively, led off with a spectacular battle of wits, Chris Crenshaw followed up with a wrong-note trombone excursion that had the rest of the band gaping, and Walter Blanding pulled it all together with a brilliant final summary. In “Brazilian Sleigh Bells,” Marsalis was as breathtaking as you might expect, but Victor Goines, doubling on clarinet, was epic—you should have seen their faces for that one.
The arrangements were terrific, but two stand out: Ted Nash’s big, brassy expansion of “My Favorite Things,” where the dogs bite and the bees sting in the snazziest, most delicious ways; and Carlos Henriquez’s version of Percy Faith’s “Brazilian Sleigh Bells,” which had much of the sax section shifting over to flute and clarinets, and the rest of the band demonstrating why Mr. Faith’s lifelong avoidance of trumpets and trombones was so, so wrong.
Marcus Printup’s massive, measured arrangement of “Joy to the World” was the only item on the program that felt even slightly at odds with its original, but it was still effective and moving, and it gave Russell and Washington a chance to show how the best jazz singers have it over everyone else in the business when it comes to expressive projection of text. “Joy to the World” is a rhetorical nightmare, with word-groupings that rarely quite jibe with its musical phrases. Sung thoughtlessly, out of habit, it quickly devolves into a kind of happy gibberish, but with Russell and Washington in charge, every clause fell into place with clear meaning and blazing intent. Their humility before language, like their immaculate diction, constituted a kind of reverence for truth that is rarely encountered, even in organized worship. This should be a lesson to everyone who sings, from the back pew at Wednesday-night prayer-meeting to downstage-center at the Met.
The rest of the run will almost certainly be sold out by the time you read this, but mark your calendar for March 2018, when next season will be announced, and start jockeying for tickets. You won’t regret it. See you there.
BIG BAND HOLIDAYS
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra
WYNTON MARSALIS, Music Director, Trumpet
GREG GISBERT, Trumpet
KENNY RAMPTON, Trumpet
MARCUS PRINTUP, Trumpet
VINCENT GARDNER, Trombone
CHRIS CRENSHAW, Trombone
SAM CHESS, Trombone
SHERMAN IRBY, Alto Saxophone
TED NASH, Alto Saxophone
VICTOR GOINES, Tenor Saxophone
WALTER BLANDING, Tenor Saxophone
PAUL NEDZELA, Baritone Saxophone
JAMES CHIRILLO, Guitar
DAN NIMMER, Piano
CARLOS HENRIQUEZ, Bass
MARION FELDER, Drums
CATHERINE RUSSELL, Vocals
KENNY WASHINGTON, Vocals
Wednesday, December 13, 2017, at 7:00 p.m. (repeated December 14-16 at 8:00)
IRVING BERLIN “White Christmas,” arranged by Victor Goines
LOUIS PRIMA “What Will Santa Claus Say (When He Finds Everybody Swingin’?),” arranged by Chris Crenshaw
HUGH MARTIN & RALPH BLANE “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” arranged by Victor Goines
RICHARD RODGERS & OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN “My Favorite Things,” arranged by Ted Nash
PERCY FAITH “Brazilian Sleigh Bells,” arranged by Carlos Henriquez
LEROY ANDERSON “Sleigh Ride,” arranged by Carlos Henriquez
VINCE GUARALDI & LEE MENDELSON “Christmas Time Is Here,” arranged by Walter Blanding
STEVE ALLEN “Cool Yule,” arranged by Sherman Irby
MASON LOWELL & ISAAC WATTS “Joy to the World.” arranged by Marcus Printup
JAMES LORD PIERPONT “Jingle Bells,” arranged by Ernie Wilkins
Cover photo: Catherine Russell appears with Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s ‘Big Band Holidays;’ photo: Jazz at Lincoln Center