Decked out in charcoal suits, blue dress shirts and ties coordinated by section, Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra gave the Sunday Paramount Theatre crowd a chatty jazz history lesson, starting with what might have been the music of legendary (but never recorded) New Orleans cornetist Buddy Bolden and ending with bristling arrangements by Marsalis himself of pieces by ‘60s innovator John Coltrane.
The show started almost a half-hour late because the producer, STG, accidentally sent an email to ticket holders with the wrong time. But once the music started, the crowd — which included lots of student jazzers, 100 of whom had attended an educational “open sound check” that afternoon — quickly settled down.
Most Americans know early jazz for its raucous enthusiasm, but Marsalis, opening with an eight-piece combo, brought a pearly elegance to such classics as Jelly Roll Morton’s “Dead Man Blues,” Louis Armstrong and King Oliver’s “Snake Rag” and Don Redman’s arrangement of “St. James Infirmary,” which Marsalis graced with a rare vocal.
Moving on to Duke Ellington, the full 16-piece band essayed the brisk, seldom-heard 1930 work “Old Man Blues,” which featured a trumpet segment with waving derby-hat mutes.
Trumpeter Marcus Printup brought spitfire and soul to “Echoes of Harlem,” a feature Ellington wrote for Cootie Williams, and a trio consisting of Ryan Kysor (trumpet), Vince Gardner (trombone) and Walter Blanding (clarinet) came downstage to showcase Ellington’s innovative voicing on the atmospheric ballad “Mood Indigo.”
Marsalis illustrated jazz’s penchant for musical “borrowing” by explaining that Ellington’s chugging-train song, “Happy Go Lucky Local,” more commonly known as “Night Train,” was lifted by James Brown from saxophonist Jimmy Forrest, who lifted it from Duke.
By way of introducing Ellington’s “Portrait of Wellman Braud,” from “The New Orleans Suite,” the Crescent City trumpeter confessed he had turned down an invitation as a kid to see Ellington, a youthful folly made more embarrassing when Marsalis later discovered Ellington bassist Braud was his great-great-uncle!
As elegant as they were, the evening’s New Orleans and Ellington segments came off as academic demonstrations once Coltrane’s darker and more dangerous works exploded.
Rippling flutes and the upward “who-o-op! who-o-op!” of Chris Crenshaw’s bucket-muted trombone conjured a continent on “Africa Brass,” as pianist Dan Nimmer delivered a thunderous solo. Marsalis’ clever hocket (parsing out the melody between sections) on the last chorus of “Giant Steps,” a five-soprano-saxophone line on Ted Nash’s arrangement of “My Favorite Things” and an intense solo by Marsalis on “Resolution,” from “A Love Supreme,” were other highlights.
For an encore, Marsalis stretched out with a quintet for a sexy, finger-popping edition of the 1939 standard “Comes Love.”