The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s appearance at the Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland on Thursday was the biggest — and in some ways the best — ticketed jazz concert of 2016 in Kansas City.
Wynton Marsalis, the world’s most famous living jazz musician and the ensemble’s music director, told the audience of about 2,000 at the Harriman-Jewell Series presentation that “you’re going to hear a lot of Christmas music.” Billed as “Big Band Holidays,” the nearly two-hour show (not including intermission) consisted solely of seasonal material.
Starring a murderers’ row of elite jazz musicians, the New York based group was so loaded with heavy hitters that a few notables including trumpeter Greg Gisbert were barely featured.
Inconspicuously positioned in the back row of the big band, Marsalis was a loquacious emcee. His trumpet solos — including an exceptionally warm statement on “Here Comes Santa Claus” and an elegantly somber contribution to “Silver Bells” — confirmed his impeccable technique and inspired artistry.
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Marsalis’ detractors have assailed his ostensibly conservative approach, but Thursday’s show was far from stodgy. The presence of prosaic material like “Frosty the Snowman” on the set list reflects the lighthearted tone of Thursday’s show. The musicians used the unpromising song as a dynamic springboard for innovation. Saxophonist Ted Nash’s outlandish solo on the children’s favorite was particularly daring.
The superlative bassist Carlos Henriquez’s playful arrangement of “Brazilian Sleigh Bells,” a composition by the easy listening maestro Percy Faith, provided a fun lark. Yet even an admirably frantic solo by saxophonist Walter Blanding couldn’t redeem an interpretation of Paul McCartney’s dreadful “Wonderful Christmastime.”
Nash’s ambitious treatment of the spiritual “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” was the evening’s most daunting selection. Marcus Printup’s anguished trumpet solo betrayed the song’s origin as what Marsalis characterized as a “Christmas plantation song.”
Catherine Russell, a seasoned vocalist Marsalis introduced as “jazz royalty,” joined the band on a handful of selections. She gamely belted out the deliriously silly “What Will Santa Claus Say? (When He Finds Everybody Swingin’),” a sepia-toned novelty associated with Louis Prima, and added doleful accents to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The full-throttled blues of “Merry Christmas Baby” was an ideal vehicle for Russell’s declamatory style.
Anyone in attendance averse to Christmas-themed music was entirely out of luck on Thursday, but the festive concert acted as an early and almost entirely fulfilling holiday gift for everyone else.
Here Comes Santa Claus; Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow; What Will Santa Claus Say? (When He Finds Everybody Swingin’); Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas; Brazilian Sleigh Bells; Merry Christmas Baby; Jingle Bells; Frosty the Snowman; Let It Snow; No Room at the Inn; Snowfall; Silver Bells; Wonderful Christmastime