Big Band Holidays: Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra

Vocalists Alexis Morrast and Denzal Sinclaire perform Silent Night
​with Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra
​Photo credit: The Royal Conservatory of Music/Koerner Hall; Lisa Sakulensky


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Review by Jeff Mitchell
Toronto ON December 2nd 2019

On Saturday, November 30th,  Dr. Peter Simon, President and CEO of the Royal Conservatory, welcomed patrons to this gala concert celebrating Koerner Hall’s 11th season. He thanked season sponsors BMO Financial and the Toronto Star, as well as concert sponsor, TD Bank Group and broadcasting supporter, Telus. He noted that proceeds of the concert go to Resounding! The Campaign for the Royal Conservatory, which helps to fund the many spectacular concerts hosted by Koerner Hall. Simon then introduced Executive Director of Performing Arts, Mervon Mehta, who acknowledged the traditional lands of 1st nations peoples on which Koerner Hall is built and the 15,000 years that people have been coming together to make music in this area. Before welcoming Wynton Marsalis and the 15-piece Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) to the stage, he noted that this would be the 1000th concert performed at Koerner Hall, a milestone worthy of one of the most anticipated jazz events of the year in Toronto.

Marsalis assumed his customary role as MC, but pointed out that although he is Music Director of the JLCO, the Music Director for tonight’s concert was actually trumpeter Marcus Printup, who also arranged many of the charts that they would play, including the opening number, Jingle Bells.  This swinging rendition of James Pierpont’s 1857 ‘hit’ brought the cup mutes out right away for the trumpets, which was a fun but rare moment of understatement for that powerful group. Other Printup arrangements over the course of the evening included: 

  • All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth, featuring the popular Canadian jazz vocalist Denzal Sinclaire
  • a rousing Dixieland version of the classic American spiritual Go Tell It On the Mountain, with tenor sax players Vincent Goines and Camille Thurman trading tenor solos, along with a blistering solo from Printup himself;
  • a lovely take on Guaraldi’s Christmastime is Here, the only ballad  on the evening;
  • the funky Donny Hathaway 1968 classic This Christmas, featuring 18-year-old vocal sensation Alexis Morrast, making her debut with JLCO;
  • and Christmas Bells are Ringing, again featuring the smooth and silky vocals of Sinclaire.

Interspersed with Printup’s arrangements were those of other talented arrangers in the band.  Bassist Carlos Henriquez arranged We Three Kings in a jazz waltz style featuring vocalist Sinclaire and sizzling solos from pianist Dan Nimmer and bari-sax player Paul Nedzela. Another Henriquez arrangement opened the second half, called Brazilian Sleigh Bells, a song composed by Canadian bandleader Percy Faith that appears on the band’s recent CD - Big Band Holidays II. Marsalis joked about how you could hardly ride an elevator in the 60s and 70s without hearing a Percy Faith tune, but this one was anything but elevator music. He also pointed out that Faith had a way of arranging music that tended to tone down the trumpets, which he said was music to the ears of those who complain that they play to loud. Anyway, this snappy samba provided Marsalis with a rare solo turn.

Saxophonist Vincent Goines contributed the following arrangements:

  • the humorously raunchy Jack Fox composition called That you, Santa Claus?, which had the feel of You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch and featured vocalist Morrast, who did an excellent job of teasing out the lyrics and showing off her scat skills, while Marsalis hammed it up with the plunger like few others can do;
  • Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, featuring trumpeter Kenny Rampton, whose brilliant playing, I found, sometimes overpowered the beauty of the melody; 
  • a version of Silent Night in the style of Fats Domino’s Blueberry Hill, which  had the audience clapping along merrily to close the concert and brought both vocalists together for the first and only time. 

Finally, two arrangements by sax man Ted Nash were featured. The first was the Mel Torme classic, The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire), sung with great feeling by the poised and soulful Morrast. She respected the melody while also being inventive in her interpretation, riffing cleverly but with restraint, often backed up only by Nash’s flute and the rhythm section. Camille Thurman also added a lush and sonorous tenor solo mid-way through. Another Nash arrangement (of a Coltrane arrangement) was the featured encore - My Favourite Things - which was notable for featuring all five reed players on their soprano saxes in a somewhat overdue showcase of the entire section.

On this night, Marsalis himself seemed content to showcase his talented ensemble more than himself, and when you’ve got those kinds of players around you, why not?  He put his own supreme talents on display on just a few occasions, though interestingly most of his soloing was lower register - technically spectacular as always, but perhaps the chops were not where he needed them to be for more high power soloing.   It seems strange that none of the trumpeters brought along a flugelhorn, which might have made for a nice change of pace in some of the selections.  But these are minor criticisms.  The audience was there to hear one of the best big bands of our time, and as the unofficial opening act of the holiday season, the band did not disappoint. 

'Grandfather of Cuban jazz' Chucho Valdés: Jazz Batá will appear live in Koerner Hall at 8pm on Wednesday December 4th 2019.