John Chapman’s photos from Monday night’s show at the Van Duzer almost say it all: Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra were smooth, cool, swingin’ in that sophisticated old style that some folks in the audience likely were lucky enough to experience first-hand and in-time -- that is, back in the traditional jazz heyday -- and that others of us might recall more artificially from moments spent in front of the television, as children, watching some swanky do take place somewhere more elegant than wherever it was we were at the time.
Marsalis and the LCJO are on their Love Songs of Duke Ellington tour, bringing us music from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. And with the first tune, Satin Doll, those in the know in the audience were exclaiming, "Oh, wow!" as if their younger selves had swept back for a cheery visit. Me, I was swept away also, to another time I never knew, into a nostalgia I certainly didn’t earn firsthand but felt overcome by just the same. But who cares: The Duke’s tunes, rendered so beautifully and effortlessly by the LCJO, have infiltrated the American consciousness. The nostalgia is everyone’s to claim.
Still, I found myself wondering -- being a rube and all -- if it was OK to be comparing this warm, live, personable and professional performance (for Marsalis tells stories between songs that educate and make you laugh) to the usual mode: in my apartment, eyes shut, music pouring out of the ratty little white speakers someone passed down to me 10 years ago.
Well, you may think the answer is easy: warm, live, personable. And I agree, especially because the speakers are shit. But I’ve grown conditioned, having mostly lived in podunk without easy access to hearing the greats play live, to hunkering down for a nice, quiet, uninterrupted listen in the privacy of my own squalid digs when there’s something really good I want to hear. And if you dare to attend a live performance, and to sit up in the rafters, in a venue in Humboldt County, at some point you will be confronted with this very question: Is live music better? I mean, normally I’d shout, "Yes!" But then when the person sitting next to you takes his shoes off and a reek of old-tunafish-sandwich pervades your nose space, and then the kids behind you start kicking the seats and chattering, you gotta wonder.
There was no doubt about what Marsalis prefers, however. Being a sophisticate, he found the Humboldt audience charming (or maybe he says so to every audience he meets). "It’s nice to play in a smaller room [like this] where you can feel everybody," he said as he introduced the next tune, "Concerto for Cootie." "The Duke always said, ‘I love you madly.’ We love you madly."
After that, they swung into the sly, squabbly "Cootie," and my mind was made up: Live is of course much, much sweeter. This remained true even when the audience fell all over the place when the band played, "Dancers In Love," from Ellington’s Perfume Suite, and they were supposed to snap along: "SNAP SNAP SNAP. SNAP SNAP SNAP" became "SNAP snap SNAPsnapSNAP." We were all outta sync.
But, really, other than the sweaty sock incident -- would the dressed-up audiences of old even have dreamed of doing this? -- I was hooked from beginning to end. It’s one thing to hear Carlos Henriquez’ bass trodding languidly through the smooch-inspiring paces of "Mood Indigo," and another entirely to watch his fingers walk slowly over the strings as you listen. And who could deny the cheeks-stained-with-teardrops power of watching Joe Temperley reach out with his clarinet and softly stroke your squishy romantic heart with "The Single Petal of a Rose"?