Wynton Marsalis, the Grammy Award winning trumpeter and composer, brought his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to Proctors on Tuesday, and the finely tuned, 15-piece ensemble proved to be ambassadors for the sometimes-neglected music form.
The band’s two sets mined the canons of American jazz greats — Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck — but also presented new, and occasionally experimental, original works by members. Through it all, Marsalis and his swinging big band demonstrated that there is indeed an audience for this music.
The full theater at Proctors erupted in applause throughout the night for nearly every thrilling solo and emphatic note played by members of the all-male, Brooks Brothers-clad orchestra, which contained four trumpeters, three trombonists and five saxophonists grounded by the swinging rhythm section of Dan Nimmer on piano, Carlos Henriquez on bass and Ali Jackson drums.
Prodigious saxman Sherman Irby took the spotlight for a nuanced, emotionally packed solo on Duke Ellington’s soulfully melancholy “Big Fat Alice’s Blues,” while the playful Ellington composition “Limbo Jazz” and Dave Brubeck’s delicate “Lost Waltz” brought multiple opportunities for stunning solos, especially from the fleet-fingered Nimmer.
Nearly everyone in the band took a turn in the spotlight at some point during the night, while Marsalis sat in back, acting as emcee to announce each song and call out the efforts of the soloists. He would nod his head along with the music, sometimes chuckling in amazement at the gifts of his well-rounded ensemble — clearly enjoying himself.
The audience got a taste of Marsalis’ own instrumental virtuosity at several points in the show, especially during his blazing trumpet solo on Dizzy Gillespie’s “Things to Come” and a boozy, woozy muted solo on Brubeck’s “Fast Life.”
But Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is much more than a touring act full of talented musicians. The institution, founded in 1987 is also a powerful nonprofit jazz organization with an educational mission driven by artistic director Marsalis, with its own performing arts center complex at Columbus Circle in New York City, and now its own record label, Blue Engine.
During a shorter second set, which offered a full-band arrangement of Chick Corea’s contemplative ballad “Crystal Silence,” the orchestra offered two pieces of original music by its members — of which 10 are music arrangers as well as players, Marsalis said. “Blue Twirl” by trombonist Vincent Gardner was an imaginative piece, inspired by contemporary painter Sam Gilliam, that captured the chaos and energy of a confounding work of abstract art. The ensemble closed with “Guarajazz” from Bronx-born bassist Carlos Henriquez’s first album, “The Bronx Pyramid,” which was the second release on Blue Engine.
Jazz may now be tied with classical music as the least popular genre of music in the United States, according to entertainment research firm Nielsen.
But you wouldn’t have known it from the applause that erupted when Marsalis — amid a full blare of horns from his team — soloed with abandon on the night’s last song, his cheeks squeezed impossibly tight.