Photo by Piper Ferguson/courtesy of Portland Ovations

Wynton Marsalis and his 15-member Lincoln Center band finally made it to Merrill Auditorium in Portland Thursday night for a sold-out concert that was rescheduled from April due to illness.

Marsalis led the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, also known as the JALCO, from his usual seat at the rear of the group. Now 62 years old, the once “Young Lion” of the resurgence of jazz in the 1980s still shows a lot of enthusiasm for what he does in bringing a variety of classic sounds and a bit of music education to audiences around the world. The JALCO presentation may seem a bit formal, but the excitement of well-played live jazz by the impeccably dressed, all-male orchestra still came through at Merrill.

Not surprisingly, given Marsalis’ longstanding affection for the music of the legendary jazz giant Duke Ellington (1899-1974), a career-spanning selection of the master’s work (that Marsalis compared favorably to the accomplishments of J.S. Bach) was featured prominently in the 90-minute performance presented by Portland Ovations.

An early favorite was “The Mooche,” an Ellington piece from 1928 easily identified by its soaring clarinet lines and, in this arrangement, semi-comical mute trumpet exclamations (provided by Marsalis). “Harlem Air Shaft,” a transitional work, encapsulated the great composer’s sense of hard swing in an arrangement that showed how Ellington pushed at the boundaries set by earlier forms of jazz while also being able to connect with audiences on a popular level.

Ellington and partner Billy Strayhorn’s “Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald” featured a lyrical trumpet solo by Marcus Printup while the “Chinoiseire” segment of “The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse” suite confirmed that the Duke could cross over into the world of mid-20th-century post-bop jazz in his later period. Walter Blanding’s extended tenor sax solo added fire to the modal churn created by pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Marty Jaffe and drummer Obed Calvaire.

Bebop and beyond drummer/composer Max Roach (1924-2007) has been receiving substantial attention by the JALCO and others on the occasion of his centennial year. His “Another Valley” was an early favorite in a Ted Nash arrangement that emphasized the trombones of Chris Crenshaw and Elliot Mason. Both offered some of the most adventurous soloing of the evening.


Roach’s “Blues Waltz” added the baritone sax of Paul Nedzela for some grit, while an arrangement of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Little Lawrence” added tuba to get at that jaunty feel amid the syncopations of early jazz. A break into a more swinging middle section, though well played, felt gratuitous. But a return to the Morton style soon followed.

Two movements from a new work by Andy Farber, Marsalis noted, sought to find inspiration in the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. The first section featured a fiery alto sax solo by Nash, a standout for many years with the JALCO, while the second brought out a later-period Count Basie-style sophisticated swing that was smooth and breezy and just about wonderful.

An encore on Roach’s “Four-X” sent the crowd home after another entertaining and enlightening evening from Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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