Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Hugh Masekela Last Night

OC Weekly
By Ryan Ritchie

If you don’t believe that music is a universal language, do yourself a favor and check out Hugh Masekela. The 72-year-old South African played for approximately 45 minutes last night and during his set, the singer sang maybe 20 words in English. Did that stop the crowd from enjoying his emotive voice and suggestive hip thrusts? Of course not.

Masekela and company could have been speaking in Martian and it wouldn’t have mattered because the six-piece band was tight, fun and in good spirits. Call it world music, smooth jazz, R&B…whatever you call it, it’s good. I had heard of the singer/flugelhorn player, but was unfamiliar with his music until last night. Maybe it was the fact that I was just so damned happy to be out of the two-hour traffic from Long Beach, but I really enjoyed his set. Assuming my ears and eyes aren’t failing me, it looked and sounded like the nearly sold-out crowd felt the same as I did.

Following a short intermission (God, I love intermissions. Such a great idea), Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra performed for about an hour. The 15-piece group is billed as “Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis,” which made me believe the trumpeter/band leader would be in front of the stage (which is how the band was set up when I saw them a few years ago at the Orange County Performing Arts Center). But I was wrong.

Marsalis took his seat in the trumpet section and played as if he was merely a member of a jazz group, not the guy with top billing. Sure, Marsalis took to the microphone between songs to introduce the tunes, but his decision to sit with his bandmates and not stand out front was very humbling and allowed the other members to shine.

And shine they did. Seriously, the JaLCO is one kick ass jazz ensemble. Trumpet player Marcus Printup, trombone player/singer Chris Crenshaw, saxophonist/clarinetist Ted Nash, saxophonist Sherman Irby and pianist Dan Nimmer all took solos that rocked has hard as anything I’ve ever heard come out of a guitar. Nimmer, in particular, was a beast. He pounded the blacks and whites as hard as any pianist I’ve ever seen. His solo came during the first song and really set the tone for the evening.

Lest I forget: the rhythm section of bassist Carlos Henriquez and drummer Ali Jackson weren’t flashy nor did they draw attention to themselves, which is exactly what a rhythm section should do. These two laid it down and laid it down hard. Never faltering. Never missing a beat. Dudes killed it in the most unassuming way possible. When their solos finally arrived, I figured they would be tired. They weren’t. Each showed a mastery of his respective instrument and the crowd noticed as well by giving a large round of applause.

The band also featured saxophonist Joe Lovano for the majority of its set last night. Lovano stood out front and blew. For non-jazz fans, this might sound like an insult, but jazz aficionados know it’s a compliment of the highest regard.

Similar to U2’s Bono and politics, it’s easy to get tired of seeing Marsalis’ face anytime the mainstream media needs someone to talk about jazz. Maybe it’s unfair to hold this against the trumpeter, but it happens. Regardless of what you think of seeing him in every jazz documentary ever made (yes, somehow he even managed to be in the ones made before he was born), the guy can play his ass off. I’ve seen him twice now and each time I’ve left feeling like I saw the top guy in the business. This high level of proficiency, coupled with his humbled seating arrangement, makes it nearly impossible not to love this guy.

I’d be doing a disservice if I failed to mention that a decent portion of the show was dedicated to saxophonist James Moody, who passed away in December. Moody’s wife was in attendance and Marsalis pointed her out to the crowd. Pictures of Moody were shown on the two big screens while the band tore through amazing renditions of some of Moody’s best known work.

Personal Bias: I’m a sucker for the Hollywood Bowl.

Crowd: I’m 31 and I was the youngest person there.

Random Notebook Dump:
I overheard two different groups of people talk about how “freezing” it was. It wasn’t.

Partial Setlist:
“I Left My Baby Sitting on the Backdoor Crying”
“Portrait in Seven Shades”
“New Orleans Bump”
“Moody’s Mood for Love”
“Last Train from Overbrook”
“Slow Hot Wind”
“Things to Come”