A Love Supreme
Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra play John Coltrane
The power, variety and virtuosity of big-band jazz were on show Sunday evening at Symphony Hall. In a presentation of the Celebrity Series of Boston, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis performed a two-hour concert of music composed or reinvented by saxophonist John Coltrane.
Led by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, managing and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, the 15-member orchestra brings rich sonic resources to its repertoire. Its brass section consists of four trumpeters and three trombonists. A seven-man woodwind section plays instruments that vary from alto, soprano, tenor and baritone saxophones to flute and bass clarinets. Complementing these players is the percussion unit: pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Carlos Henriquez and drummer Ali Jackson.
Introducing “Africa,” the first selection, Marsalis said that it was “about soul and a long vamp.” Alternating layers of highly textured big band sound with solos, it was a feast of quick-changing turns in pace and texture within a repeating framework — that vamp. Solos included a Latin-inflected turn by Nimmer, a joy ride of swinging, easy melodic runs, and a pulsing give-and-take between Henriquez and Boston Arts Academy senior Daniel Winshall, a guest bassist on the piece.
Next, the orchestra played Coltrane’s version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, “My Favorite Things.” The performance was rich with rippling clarinet solos, including a sinuous, yearning passage by Victor Goines.
“Ole,” a Coltrane composition re-arranged by six members of the orchestra, rendered an impressionistic picture in music conjuring a land of toreadors and Moorish palaces. Richly textured and complex, the performance included a searching solo by soprano saxophonist Walter Blanding and a soulful trombone passage by Vincent Gardner.
The orchestra devoted the second half of the program to a John Coltrane masterpiece of sacred music, “A Love Supreme.”
Coltrane’s 1965 recording of “A Love Supreme” is one of the most revered jazz albums of all time. A four-part suite, the composition’s movements are “Acknowledgement,” which includes the signature mantra that gives the suite its name; “Resolution;” “Pursuance;” and “Psalm.”
Coltrane recorded the suite with his great quartet. With Coltrane on tenor saxophone and vocals, Jimmy Garrison played double bass, McCoy Tyner was the pianist and Elvin Jones played drums, gong, and timpani.
Marsalis has said that “A Love Supreme” is a work that “begins in the universal church and ends in the church of Negro spirituals.”
In 2002, Marsalis arranged the suite for his orchestra and three years later, he and his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra recorded the big-band arrangement, which incorporates elements of the blues, 4/4 swing, Afro-Latin rhythms, and ballads.
This year, the orchestra is performing “A Love Supreme” in concerts to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Coltrane’s album. Introducing the suite, Marsalis said, “It’s an important piece, and it’s important to return to it and think about it.”
Both the community and the individual are summoned and spoken for in the Coltrane composition, which makes room for all moods and voices in prayer. The orchestra brought its assets to Coltrane’s masterpiece: big-band scale and the diversity of its soloists’ voices. They delivered a stylish and powerful work of praise.
Early on in the first movement, an exciting dialogue emerged between two trombonists, Vincent Gardner and his bandstand neighbor Elliot Mason, whose wah-wah mute deepened the blue undertone. As fellow trumpeters exclaimed, Marcus Printup released a gospel-inflected solo. Bassist Henriquez reflectively fingered the movement’s refrain, which was then picked up by pianist Nimmer in a swinging, light-hearted solo.
The four-part suite proceeded without a pause, with Henriquez’s solos providing transitions from one movement to another. Jackson’s rippling drums backed a high-velocity solo by Sherman Irby on alto saxophone. Leaving his place on the bandstand and stepping up to the microphone, trombonist Elliot Mason rendered the mantra-like chant, “a love supreme,” with almost atonal distortion in a high-energy improvisation that brought bop into the era- crossing performance — yet another assertion of freedom and individuality within both jazz and prayer.
An unhurried drum solo by Ali Jackson began as a playful, brawny exploration of strong and gentle beats and then picked up speed until he and his kit were vibrating like a pneumatic drill. In his one solo, Marsalis delivered a soaring, staccato trumpet passage. At the microphone with his soprano saxophone, Ted Nash was a snake charmer, playing a sinuous, liquid solo while Henriquez and Jackson provided driving percussion.
Receding like an ebb tide, the shimmering textures, tumult and grandeur gradually came to rest.