The number of jazz artists who can sell out Merrill Auditorium is very small, even smaller now that Dave Brubeck is gone.
The man who is probably at the top of the list of those who can still draw a large audience for jazz is Wynton Marsalis.
The 51-year-old trumpeter, composer, educator and sometimes controversial artistic director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra brought along 14 first-rate musicians to a packed Merrill on Friday night for a performance presented by Portland Ovations.
Marsalis and company lived up to their reputations for mastery as they worked through a repertoire that encompassed what the leader referred to as music that is “perpetually modern.”
Tunes by Gerry Mulligan, Horace Silver, Duke Ellington and others were impeccably played by the suit and tie-clad ensemble. Criticism of Marsalis often hinges on views that he is a “purist” who favors “classic” jazz at the expense of newer versions of the music.
Pieces by the leader himself were the newest on the program, but most selections were given updated arrangements by various members of the band. Among the more adventurous numbers was an arrangement of Ornette Coleman’s “Una Muy Bonita” by saxophonist Ted Nash, who also contributed an engaging solo on alto sax.
As Marsalis explained, this piece offered an example of the Lincoln Center Orchestra’s interest in creating large ensemble versions of songs originally composed for small combo.
An arrangement of Horace Silver’s “Senor Blues” was another example of what can be accomplished in the large format without losing the tune’s original spirit.There is little sense in messing with the music of Duke Ellington, and a sextet from the band performed a lovely, faithful rendition of “Mood Indigo,” with Walter Blanding outstanding on clarinet.
Two sections from a Mass composed by Marsalis closed the main program with tremendous intensity nicely balanced against some playful horn voicings.
Ellington’s “Braggin’ in Brass” was also a highlight, with rapid-fire lines from trumpet and trombone in the fore.
Let’s hope that jazz of this caliber won’t be a stranger to Merrill Auditorium after this impressive visit from a master and his men.
Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.