He is the world’s preeminent jazz trumpeter and the bandleader of the Jazz at Lincoln Center (JLC) Orchestra, whose members were Tuesday’s guests at Eastman Theatre’s Kodak Hall. He is also well-respected in the world of classical music, and even his critics agree: Wynton Marsalis has brought dignity and respect to jazz. In spite of all this, Marsalis sauntered onstage Tuesday at eastman’s Kodak Hall to raucous applause, which he humbly acknowledged as he took his seat among the other trumpet players, filling out the back row of the traditional 17-piece big band. His stage presence is conservative. He gave a brief introduction, and wasted no time in striking up the band.
The orchestra kicked off the night with Count Basie’s 1961 arrangement of “Jingle Bells.” Remaining true to the quintessential late Basie style, JLC played with the relaxed, high-energy drive characteristic of Basie’s “Second Testament” orchestra, born in the mid-1950s. JLC’s drummer, Ali Jackson, played with echoes of Sonny Payne, of Basie’s Second Testament band. More obvious was the allusion to Basie’s famous personal style by pianist Dan Nimmer: minimalist, unpretentious key-plunking.
Next on the set list was JLC trumpeter Marcus Printup’s arrangement of “Caroling, Caroling,” popularized by Nat King Cole. One of two guest vocalists for the evening, singer Denzal Sinclaire made his first appearance. Sinclaire, who has an urbane, soothing voice, is economical with his swung notes and flourishes, careful to neither overdo nor disappoint. During instrumental interludes, Sinclaire perched himself on stage right, behind the pianist. Craned slightly forward, engaging his feet in a sort of shuffle-step in time with the music, hands clasped behind his back, he awaited his cue to return. In a sentiment echoed by the band, he concluded the song with the sound of pealing bells, slowly fading.
After a groovy arrangement of “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” the audience was treated to saxophonist Walter Blanding’s arrangement of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” The trumpet section squeaked out kissing sounds to introduce the tune. Marsalis noted that, when first released, the song incited scandal, and mused, “What would you have to do today to get a song banned?” The audience laughed—nobody knew. “If you find one,” Marsalis beseeched, “let us know.”
After an abrupt ending, the band transitioned to a less racy choice: “Winter Wonderland.” Introducing her as “the world’s greatest scat singer,” Marsalis welcomed the second guest vocalist, Audrey Shakir, to the stage. Shakir—incidentally, Blanding’s mother—has a style all her own: it’s low and powerful, and she holds no punches with the blue notes and vibrato. And it’s true: she is an excellent scat singer. Shakir is an active presence onstage when she is singing—and when she isn’t. She swings her arms, claps, leans back. After her scat solo, she laughed and put her face in her hands.
The song closed on passages replete with interjectory scat solos. Elvis’ hit, “Blue Christmas,” followed. Wynton wryly noted, “There’s the gift, and there’s always the pill. […] [The holidays are] a double-edged sword.” The song featured Sinclaire and Shakir in duet. Sinclaire lamented, “I’ll have a blue Christmas without you,” to which Shakir responded, to the amusement of the audience, “He’ll have a blue Christmas without me.” A strong alto solo reminiscent of Ben Webster’s thick sax tones followed a rare baritone sax solo.
In his introduction to the next song, Irving Berlin’s classic “White Christmas,” Marsalis joked that “[it achieved] an estimated 50 million in sales—and it’s good, too.” Then he talked football. (He’s a Saints fan.) The song started off with an uncharacteristic—but not uncommon for jazz—Latin rhythm. The trombones emitted an eerie sound with the use of their bucket mutes, while the trumpets squealed in the background.
Following “White Christmas” was “Sleigh Ride,” a hallmark of any middle school’s “infamous Christmas concert,” which Marsalis dubbed the “only concert that parents, brothers and sisters are forced to attend.” The backdrop, as if to emphasize the accumulated kitsch of “Sleigh Ride” over the last 60 years, changed to a bright red with green accent lights, reindeer and a sleigh filled with presents.
In an arrangement by Blanding for his mother of “(Everybody’s Waitin’ for) The Man with the Bag,” Shakir indulged the audience with another scat solo, in the middle of which she shouted “Dizzy Gillespie!” (Gillespie, a bebop pioneer, was present in Shakir’s solo.) “You better watch out now,” she exclaimed as a trombonist took a solo that channeled, briefly, the sound of the adults in the “Peanuts” series.
Following a laid back rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” by the rhythm section—featuring a cascading piano solo by Nimmer, edging occasionally on the virtuosity of Art Tatum; Jackson on an unsatisfyingly brief but solid drum solo; and Carlos Henriquez on a smooth, walking bass solo—the band welcomed Sinclaire back for a rendition of “The Christmas Song.” Closing out the concert, the band played “Silent Night” in the boogie style of Fats Domino, with both Sinclaire and Shakir on vocals.
I had the good fortune to interview Shakir before the concert. According to Shakir, Eastman is the band’s third stop on its holiday tour, and she was excited to be a part of it. “It’s just such a thrill, it’s such a pleasure,” Shakir said. “I can’t even describe how it really is—I don’t have the words.”
Most recently from Baltimore, Shakir made a career as a jazz vocalist in Atlanta. Her influences, like most jazz musicians’, are varied. Shakir’s vocal influences include Shirley Horn, Joe Williams (“One time, I heard him live, and it was like being at a rock concert”), Jimmy Scott, Mahalia Jackson (“She was the first vocalist that I ever heard that kind-of made the planet stop spinning for a bit”), Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and many more. Shakir remarked, “I try to hear something in everyone that I can use, or that can make me go, ‘I wonder if I…’ ”
But Shakir’s influences are not confined to vocals. “I chose to be a singer, but I don’t think of myself that way,” Shakir said. “I really try to think of myself as an instrumentalist, and I have the same expectations for myself on my instrument […] [My] influences include people like Charlie Parker […]. I love the […] understated method of Miles Davis. I love John Coltrane, and how he plays like he’s using words […]. There are so many people to whom I look—it isn’t just vocalists.”
The best jazz musicians, Shakir said, are those who compel you to listen—not just those in her influences, or a list of jazz greats. She wants people to listen to the vocalist when they sing, and to find something to listen to that is unique to them. “You know, it’s kind-of like you’re in a love affair or something, and you’re in a situation […] where you’re with somebody […],” Shakir described. “You don’t want them to be thinking about somebody else, just you. ‘Oh, that sounds just like Ella Fitzgerald…’ That’s not exactly what I’m going for. I want you to listen to me.”
At the same time, by Shakir’s own admission, influences color any musician’s style. Listeners, however, should not fixate on anyone other than the musician(s) in front of them, and appreciate their unique style.
Shakir had nothing but praise for the musicians of the JLC Orchestra. “The band doesn’t know how to do anything but hit you hard, every-which-way,” Shakir said. “They really don’t know how else to do it. They do everything perfect—bam! right between the eyes, to where you’ll be sitting on the edge of your seat and don’t breathe, it’s so subtle that you’ll miss something. […] That’s what I’m looking forward to.” She also praised the inspirational leadership of Marsalis. “This is a guy… he’s kind-of old-school about the music. I’ve run into his spirit before, is what I want to say,” Shakir mused. “[…] all he wants is your best, that’s all. And then he wants you to dig and find something else, too.”
The concert was every bit as good as Shakir claimed. An immediate standing ovation greeted the performers as soon as their final song ended. “Happy Holidays” was projected onto the stage as the audience shuffled out.
Ransom is a member of the class of 2017.