Wynton Marsalis had top billing on the program Friday night, but he wasn't afraid to step back and let his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra members shine during the group's performance in Eisenhower Auditorium.
Friday's show marked Marsalis' sixth performance at Penn State. The ensemble played each piece in the 90-minute set with seeming perfection — a tight rhythm section backed up flawless solos from the horns.
Marsalis started the night with a solo, but largely sat back and let the other musicians take them during other songs. He did not characterize himself as the group's lead trumpet player, leaving that to the impressive Ryan Kisor; he had great range and his powerful solos filled the room with ease.
The group played several of Marsalis' compositions and arrangements, including "The Caboose" from his 1999 release "Bit Train" and "Free for All," a piece originally written by Wayne Shorter for Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers — Marsalis' first group. On a lighter note, the group also delved into his take on "The Itsy Bitsy Spider," which they managed to make sound both sultry and sweet simultaneously.
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Marsalis talked little during the set, but he did take a moment to recognize the band's rhythm section of pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Carlos Henriquez and drummer Ali Jackson. He praised their ability to work together and constantly come up with new grooves when songs take unexpected turns.
"You want to talk about collaboration and a democratic process ...we're going to send them to Congress," he said as the audience burst into laughter.
Perhaps the most powerful song of the evening was "Tree of Freedom," Marsalis' portrait of Spain's Basque region. The piece began with a powerful, classically tinged piano solo before launching into a Latin groove accented with tambourines and syncopated clapping from the band.
The performance ended simply with Marsalis, Nimmer, Henriquez, Jackson and saxophonist Walter Blanding playing as a quintet. They easily moved from Bebop to waltzes and back again, closing the evening with effortless precision that's sure to fill Eisenhower Auditorium the next time Marsalis visits Happy Valley.
Jenna Spinelle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.