Over the years, music director, trumpeter and gentleman Wynton Marsalis has maneuvered several smaller craft—a quartet, a quintet and a septet—through New Mexico's jazz waters. Next week, he’ll dock the quindectet Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, the flagship of that New York institution, in Albuquerque for a program of Duke Ellington’s love songs. One thing is for sure: The evening will swing.
Arguably the most accomplished jazz repertory big band in the world, the orchestra also includes Ryan Kisor, Sean Jones, Marcus Printup (trumpets); Chris Crenshaw, Vincent Gardner, Elliot Mason (trombones); Walter Blanding, Victor Goines, Sherman Irby, Ted Nash, Joe Temperley (reeds); Dan Nimmer (piano); Carlos Henriquez (bass); and Ali Jackson (drums).
Marsalis spoke to the Alibi as he was traveling between gigs in California last Sunday.
You’re leading what may be the world’s swingingest band. What exactly is swing?
First, it’s a noun, it’s a verb and it’s an adjective. It’s a period of American history. It’s a style of music. It’s a rhythm. It also means that you have a flexible attitude and good manners, you’re able to make adjustments in style. It’s all of those things.
Why does it make everybody feel so good?
It’s the combination of conflicting rhythms. When two conflicting rhythms can come together and remain together, it feels good. Like when the daddy and the mama get along in the family. (laughs)
Taking a big band on the road is a big challenge. Why bother?
You can do many things with a large orchestra. ... One is play the legacy of our music. It comes from so many great composers and arrangers that we’ve had down through the years. [Marsalis lists a wide range of orchestra projects, from oratorios to ballets.] These are things you can do with a small band, but the large orchestra is a much more ceremonial body. Also, as more people play, it’s a much more sophisticated ensemble. In the case of our big band, we have such phenomenal soloists—I don’t know that there’s ever been a band that every person in every chair really could solo.
Many of the orchestra members are leaders in their own right. Is it difficult for them to play big-band charts night after night?
Well, it’s a sacrifice. But we have such even-tempered guys—this is one of the most getting-along bands ever. ... The feeling we get collectively—every night, just to hear people play that well, even though they know they’re only going to solo probably once that night. ... But the music, everybody loves playing the music, and the band sounds so good together. We’re proud to be a part of it.
How did the Ellington love songs theme come about?
It’s an important body of music. ... The songs are all so timeless, and the fact of romance, a man and a woman, that’s also a timeless theme, so any time is the right time for that. Our orchestra was also formed with the surviving members of Duke Ellington’s band. Sometimes we find ourselves getting away from Duke’s music, and we say, We got to play some Duke, and go back home.
What might we hear?
All the classics: “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Satin Doll,” “Creole Love Call,” “Warm Valley,” “Lady of the Lavender Mist”—that’s a beautiful title. We’ve got known and unknown. “Lady Mac” from Such Sweet Thunder, “Paris Stairs” from Paris Blues Suite, “The Flaming Sword.”
Whose arrangements are you using?
We use his arrangements. ... He’s probably the greatest arranger in the history of jazz—not probably, he is. Why would we use another arranger? That’s like getting somebody to arrange a Beethoven symphony. (laughs)
You have many time-consuming roles. How do you keep sharp on your instrument?
Well, we’ve been playing on tour almost every night since June. When you’re playing with these musicians, you have to keep your thing together ... ha ... because they’re listening to you play, too. They’re not letting up when they play. They’re serious about playing, and they will let you know if you’re not playing. Mm-hmm.