Before the concert at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs Saturday evening, master jazz trumpet player Wynton Marsalis said he loved returning to the open venue, loved the feeling of community and warmth from the crowd.
It was clear by the extended standing ovation after the concert, Martha’s Vineyard loved having him here again.
Last year he brought a quintet. This year he brought the entire Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, 15 of the best jazz musicians in the world. Mr. Marsalis and his big band wowed a large and appreciative crowd with a program of Duke Ellington music, a swinging tribute to the legendary composer and bandleader, by a composer and bandleader every bit worthy of Ellington’s mantle. He called it a privilege and an honor to play the familiar tunes.
“I got excited today thinking about it,” Mr. Marsalis said from his seat in the orchestra. “We’re going to get to play the music of Duke Ellington.”
He is the managing and artistic director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, but his role with the band lacks the level of ego that might be expected and even appropriate for someone who has achieved so much in the world of music.
He sits in the back with the trumpet section, and calls generously on the three other trumpet players for solos. Imagine sitting next to Mr. Marsalis, winner of a Pulitzer Prize and nine Grammy awards, who is, by the way, your boss, and being called to stand and play a trumpet solo. No pressure there.
He played a few solos himself, improvising with lightning speed and dexterity, while coaxing high notes from his horn that few other trumpeters in the world would even attempt in a concert setting.
The orchestra opened with “The ‘A’ Train,” one of the most beloved standards in jazz, and followed with the familiar “Sophisticated Lady” and “Mood Indigo.” They played lesser known but no less brilliant compositions like “Harlem Airshaft,” “Drop Me Off in Harlem,” and “Jack the Bear.”
They played sweet, and hot, and tight, swinging every note. It was sophisticated music played before a sophisticated crowd who understood the level of musicianship on the stage, and responded with enthusiastic applause to each virtuoso who stepped into the spotlight.
Kenny Rampton offered a number of sparkling trumpet solos, and was featured along with Walter Blanding Jr. and Victor Goines in “Mood Indigo.”
Mr. Goines earned applause again and again for his precision on saxophone and clarinet.
Carlos Henriquez drove the bass line with aplomb, and Ali Jackson induced the crowd to erupt in applause after a passionate drum solo.
Joe Temperley, 84, who played with Duke Ellington for many years, earned the heartfelt appreciation of the audience. A giant of a man playing a giant baritone saxophone, Mr. Temperley laid big swinging notes under the melodies all night long, at times soft and subtle, at times a virtual fire hose gushing that signature Ellington sound.
Mr. Marsalis has always looked at music as a big picture.
On Friday, he delivered an inspiring program of Duke Ellington music and stories in a free concert for kids at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s Performing Arts Center. Using the brilliant trick of convincing a packed house of squirming children that much of their success in life depended, like Duke Ellington, on being “the world’s greatest listener,” he held the packed house rapt for an hour. Using humor, narration, and music, he demonstrated rifs, breaks, composition, arrangement, and instrumentation like the accomplished educator he is.
At the Saturday evening concert, he displayed an encyclopedic knowledge of Ellingtonia that extended far beyond the sheet music resting on the stand in front of him. Without pretension or exaggeration, he deftly wove stories of the legendary composer into the concert, putting in sharp context the role Duke Ellington played in American history.
It was tight, it was rich, it was swinging in every sense of the word. No one left the Tabernacle with a frown. No one left with a lesser sense of Duke Ellington’s brilliance, or that of Mr. Marsalis. No one left who isn’t counting the days until Wynton Marsalis returns to Martha’s Vineyard.