Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the CSO join forces again

The joy of being in good company captured here as musicians from the CSO alternate with those from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in a collaborative performance from 2017. JLCO Artistic Director and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis appears in the center.

Anne Ryan

For most of its 36-year history, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra has been making near-annual visits to Orchestra Hall in Chicago.

With his eponymous quartet, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis made his debut in Orchestra Hall in April 1986 on a special concert with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and returned in 1988 on the Allied Arts Pops series, again with the Wynton Marsalis Quartet. In 1992 in Orchestra Hall, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra debuted with Marsalis as the ensemble’s newly minted artistic director (he is now its managing and artistic director). The orchestra came again in 1995 for the Orchestra Hall Presents Jazz series, which would soon be renamed Symphony Center Presents Jazz. It has been a fixture on the CSOA's Jazz series ever since in addition to many other notable performances, including several with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Renamed Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in 2006, the ensemble, along with its presenter in Chicago, has established a rich and plentiful history, making a deep impression on the city in some 50 concerts and through numerous educational activities.   

“Chicago is like another home to us,” said saxophonist Sherman Irby. “We spend so much time staying there and performing at the hall. Jim Fahey with the Chicago Symphony is a friend to all of us. So, it’s like an old homecoming. We have a good time there.”

Indeed, when the 15-piece JLCO returns in April, Irby already knows some of the restaurants he’s going to visit — Lem’s Bar-B-Q and Harold’s Chicken. “We get a chance to see people we’ve known for 20-30 years,” he said.

But the band’s visit this time is a little different. While it will present an April 24 concert as part of the Symphony Center Presents Jazz series like it often does, it will also join forces with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for a set of concerts April 25-27.

Edwin Outwater conducts the CSO and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at a joint performance on March 3, 2017.

Anne Ryan

That means the JLCO will stay considerably longer than usual, essentially a weeklong residency with some educational activities along the way, and the members are looking forward to it.  “That’s a long time to be somewhere,” said saxophonist Victor Goines. “That’s like a vacation.”

The JLCO has collaborated with multiple orchestras, including a program titled Nutcracker Swing, which was broadcast on Live from Lincoln Center in 2001. It featured the New York Philharmonic playing a section from The Nutcracker followed by the jazz ensemble playing the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn arrangement of the same section and then repeating the interchange.

“This is very familiar ground for us to do collaborative things,” Goines said.

Crossover projects of this kind between the New York big band and CSO have included a similar treatment of Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite in 1999 with then-CSO Music Director Daniel Barenboim and Pictures from an Exhibition in 2017 with guest conductor Edwin Outwater. Another collaborative highlight was the 2007 performance of Marsalis’ own All Rise, conducted by Steven Sloane, with JLCO, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and soloists, including sopranos Elizabeth Norman and Elizabeth Harrison, tenor Brian Robinson and bass Martin Woods.

To conclude the April 25-27 program with guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero, the CSO will perform selections from Sergei Prokofiev’s beloved 1935 ballet, Romeo and Juliet. Each section will be followed by the JLCO playing a jazz version of the same section composed by a member of the big band.   

“So, it’s that back and forth — jazz and classical,” said Irby, who is writing one of the jazz pieces for the interaction. “We can all be on the same stage and relate in our own way to a great piece that was written by a great composer.”

The CSO and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra are enthusiastically received after their 2017 performance.

Anne Ryan

The program will open with John Adams’ The Chairman Dances, an outtake from the composer’s landmark 1987 opera, Nixon in China, and continue with Suite for Variety Orchestra No. 1, a suite in eight movements based on excerpts of ballet, theater and film music by Dmitri Shostakovich that were arranged by Levon Atovmayn, a close friend of the composer. 

The work, which had its first documented performance in 1988, will be performed by the CSO with four members of the JLCO, including Irby and Goines, taking the alto and tenor saxophone parts called for in the score.

Rounding out the program is All-American Pep, the second movement from Marsalis’ Swing Symphony, which was written for symphony orchestra and big band. The seven-movement work was co-commissioned in 2010 by the Berlin Philharmonic, London Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic and New York Philharmonic.

“It’s very intricate in how we are all working together,” Goines said. “We are playing together the whole time. It’s not one against the other. It’s one ensemble.”

Jazz at Lincoln Center Music Director and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis performing at the 2017 concert with the CSO

Anne Ryan

Irby, a Tuscaloosa, Alabama, native, performed with the JLCO in 1995-97 and rejoined in 2005, playing alto and tenor saxophones, clarinet and flute. He has also performed with Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead (a jazz mentorship program at the Kennedy Center), toured with pianist Marcus Roberts and was a member of Roy Hargrove’s and Elvin Jones’ ensembles.

He appreciates the constant evolution of the Lincoln Center ensemble. “With some bands,” he said, “you get to a thing, and then that’s kind of what the thing is, and it doesn’t go any further. We continue to grow, because we play so much music. It’s always a challenge. I never get bored.”

The saxophonist also had praise for Marsalis, whom he described as driven but kind, meticulous but understanding. The music director realizes that the group’s members are human beings with weaknesses at times, Irby said, and “some of faults and frailties can actually enhance the music, because the music is never meant to be perfect.”

Goines, a New Orleans native who plays tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinet and bass clarinet, has been a member of the JLCO and the Wynton Marsalis Septet, which is at the inactive at the moment, since 1993.

“It’s been fast,” Goines said of his time in the big band. “Those things that are such a joy pass so quickly. And it has been and continues to a fantastic artistic experience, but it’s also been a phenomenal educational opportunity to learn in so many different ways as a performer, person, composer and arranger. It has been a dream job that most people wish to have.” 

Before taking over as president and chief executive officer of Jazz St. Louis, the saxophonist served in 2008–22 as director of jazz studies at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music in Evanston. That meant when the JLCO came to Chicago, he was returning to what was then his home base.

“Quite often, we’d have some great parties at my house for the band when we were in town,” he said. “I always believed that wherever your hometown is, it was important to have some type of social gathering like we’ve done in New York at Wynton’s house and Baton Rouge at (trumpeter) Wes Anderson’s house and Georgia at (trombonist) Wycliffe Gordon’s house.”

“I felt very responsible for making us feel like we were at home, since we spend so much of our life on the road.”