Friday, Sept. 25; with the clock nearing 8 p.m., an overwhelmed Mondavi staff scurried about in an attempt to seat a full house before the lights dim. It was opening night of the eighth season at the Mondavi Center and a diverse and excited crowd waited for jazz legend Wynton Marsalis to take the stage.
Following a brief introduction from Mondavi Center executive director Don Roth, the performers finally took the stage. In accordance with Marsalis‘ traditionalist aesthetic, even the orchestra’s attire hearkened back to an older jazz age – 16 performers sporting matching black suits, lavender shirts and black ties. Marsalis, acting double duty as lead trumpet and music coordinator, took his place in the middle of the back row, overseeing the entire ensemble.
Without banter or even a “how do you do,” Marsalis and Co. launched straight into their first suite, a reinterpretation of an early Ted Nash piece. Surprising to none, the first solo of the night belonged to Mr. Marsalis. His trumpet squealed and screeched through a flurry of 16th notes. The unsuspecting crowd would soon come to realize that the blistering opening was a mere warm-up for the rest of the evening.
Wynton Marsalis, born in 1961 in New Orleans, began studying classical trumpet at age 12. After Julliard, Marsalis was hired by jazz legend Art Blakey, in what became one of the final incarnations of the Jazz Messengers. “Blakey was the only one picking up guys who couldn’t play,” joked Marsalis during the performance, underplaying his personal achievements. Two years later, at 21, Marsalis released his first album as a composer and band leader. Since then, he has put out more than 30 albums, won nine Grammy Awards and the first Pulitzer Prize for Music for a jazz record. Today, Marsalis is considered one of the most prolific and prominent figures of modern jazz.
After a rendition of “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” which proved to be more unsettling than humorous, the orchestra finished their first set with two huge crowd pleasers.
Wayne Shorter’s “Free for All,” as the title suggests, was a loud and fast cacophony of hard bop, anchored by a high walking bass and syncopated rim shots. After the final solo exchange, the audience sprang to their feet, cheering uncontrollably; we were putty in Mr. Marsalis‘ highly capable hands.
Rounding off the first half of the set was an arrangement of a Sweet Papa Lou Donaldson piece; within seconds the entirety of Jackson Hall was bobbing along. A number of audience members, hypnotized by the rhythm, or merely unable to contain their excitement, began hollering “Yeah” at the musicians. Encouraged by the response, Marsalis began adding to the energy by loudly taunting and coaxing the soloists, making faces at the crowd, laughing to himself and even exclaiming the occasional “Yeah.” The first set ended with a much-deserved standing ovation.
The second half of the set, although less heated and dynamic, proved to be just as enthralling. The Orchestra meditated on a wide variety of genres and composers. Arrangements included Duke Ellington’s poppy “Tattooed Bride,” Ted Nash’s “Portrait of Henri Matisse” and the ragtime standard “Weary Blues.” Marsalis concluded the night with a cover of Thelonious Monk’s “Chris Cross.”
After what seemed like an endless standing ovation, and just as the audience began to lose hope and started filing out, Marsalis returned to the stage for a highly anticipated encore. Accompanied only by his rhythm section and a tenor sax, Marsalis gave one of the most rousing performances of the night. Having already convinced the audience of his untouchable virtuosity and technical prowess, Marsalis let loose a behemoth of a solo that teetered on the edge of classical and the avant-garde, testing both the range of his instrument and the limits of good taste. Barely mic‘ed, the trumpet resounded throughout the hall, sounding like a cross between a slide whistle and a choking crow. Marsalis graciously bowed; the crowd was smitten and we all went home.
BORIS FREYMAN can be reached at email@example.com.