The disc’s assemblage of young and old pianists pays off — Handful of Keys is one of Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s better efforts.
Handful of Keys: Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, Blue Engine Records.
By Steve Feeney
Perusing the track list for Handful of Keys, the latest live release from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, I suspected that, once again, the august musical institution had produced a museum-quality take on jazz history, this time with an emphasis on pianists.
Marsalis’ well publicized loyalty to tradition, his “commitment to the continuum and the belief in the non-segregation of generations,” is a valid approach to maintaining the jazz heritage. The irony is that it’s when the band takes a step or two beyond paying its respects to the past that the performances really sparkle and stomp.
Featuring pianists from 13-year-old Joey Alexander to 89-year-old Dick Hyman, the disc’s generational parameters are indeed set wide. And the assemblage of young and old pays off — this disc is one of the band’s better efforts.
Hyman stakes claim to historical authenticity with a sprightly take on James P Johnson’s “Jingles,” a piece he also arranged for the orchestra. Providing a classic rhythmic stride throughout the performance, the veteran deftly works his right hand into a cascade of notes that suggest jazz’s evolution from its raucous beginnings to its sophisticated maturity. JALC clarinetist Victor Goins’ playful contribution revs up the piece’s period character.
For his second number, Hyman chose early swing legend Benny Carter’s arrangement of the standard “All of Me.” His left hand walking down the keys, the performer makes his case for the song with casual ease. The saxes enter to both counter and then cajole the pianist; the results conjure up a dancehall filled with infectious rhythms. Chris Crenshaw’s trombone tells the story one more time — before it’s all brought home.
Prodigies are often admired for their novelty value but, in published and broadcast discussions, Marsalis confirms that he thinks the adolescent Alexander is worthy of serious consideration. On this occasion, the youngster tackles “Very Early,” a rare Bill Evans original, in an arrangement by JALC’s Walter Blanding.
The piece nicely establishes a sense of Evans’ impressionistic bent through softened orchestral voicings. Alexander plays with pointed relaxation, an approach that skillfully shines a light on an overlooked aspect of Evans’ art. The late great pianist’s melancholy subsided from time to time, and he strolled (more or less) on the sunny side of the street. Alexander displays plenty of maturity, as well as promise, by taking this thoughtful line of attack.
The veteran “downtown” pianist Myra Melford takes the lead on her own “The Strawberry,” the only original composition on this disc. Wisely, Melford gave arrangement duties to Ted Nash, the member of JALC who is most likely to stretch limits. Together, they search in this tune for that elusive link between early jazz and post-1960s avant-garde.
A spiky blues opening by the pianist gives way to a Latin-ized, angular expansion that pushes Marsalis’ trumpet up front. Alternating mute and open techniques, along with some expressive overblowing, his solo ends up blowing ‘strawberries’ at the ensemble. Melford’s lively solo embraces Don Pullen-style percussive freedom (there are resonances with the orchestral Charles Mingus throughout this piece) before the band brings it all back to normal.
Helen Sung arranged, and plays piano, on McCoy Tyner’s surging “Four by Five.” She and JALC drummer Ali Jackson charge, with bravado, into modal territory, the orchestra adding dazzling layers of density. Known mostly for her small group work, Sung is all over this piece, not only paying admirable homage to Tyner, but upping the ante with her own large ensemble’s expression of the spirit behind his evocative music.
The revelation on this album for me was Isaiah J. Thompson who, with Hyman, shines on two cuts. A student at the JALC Youth Workshop and the Julliard School of Music, the young pianist takes on a Vincent Gardner arrangement of the classic Warren/Dubin tune “Lulu’s Back in Town.” His opening solo starts out as an unhurried walk through the modernist realm, but the piece quickly moves into Ellington territory once the orchestra enters. Alto sax man Sherman Irby toys with the well-known theme before he latches onto a effervescent bop line that he twists and turns around and around.
Oscar Peterson’s “Hymn of Freedom” gives us Thompson, in a trio format (no arranger listed), reveling in the blues. The pianist leans into his evocation of Peterson’s showy but still soulful style. Henriquez and Jackson offer precise but swinging support for what amounts to an earful of rich musical uplift.
JALC regular Dan Nimmer wraps the disc up with “Temperance,” a Wynton Kelly tune arranged by bandmate Marcus Printup. The pianist’s lines throb with a wonderful, good-timey bounce. Boosted by some short section riffs from the band, the cut reiterates Nimmer and JALC’s dogged commitment to digging — with respectful moderation — for the molten core of jazz.
Steve Feeney is a Maine native and attended schools in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. He has a Master of Arts Degree in American and New England Studies from the University of Southern Maine. He began reviewing music on a freelance basis for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in 1995. He was later asked to also review theater and dance. Recently, he has added BroadwayWorld.com as an outlet and is pleased to now contribute to Arts Fuse.