BWW Review: SAN DIEGO SYMPHONY PRESENTS JAZZ AT LINCOLN CENTER ORCHESTRA WITH CHICK COREA at San Diego Jacobs Music Center

BWW Review: SAN DIEGO SYMPHONY PRESENTS JAZZ AT LINCOLN CENTER ORCHESTRA WITH CHICK COREA at San Diego Jacobs Music Center

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with pianist Chick Corea performed this past weekend as part of the San Diego Symphony's jazz series. When I last heard the band two years ago without Corea, I thought it was in a bit of a rut, and I can see why Wynton Marsalis, its usual leader, chose the pianist to stand in for him while he's on a composing break. Corea uses harmony and rhythm in a modern style very different from that of the Swing Era big bands like Ellington's that Marsalis had in mind when he formed the orchestra in 1988. He must have seen Corea as a refreshing addition at a first concert with him in 2011. In any event, "rut" was no longer an appropriate term for many of the intricate arrangements premiered at that concert and reprised here last Saturday.

The night began with a sextet wailing away for an attentive crowd in the entry lobby.

BWW Review: SAN DIEGO SYMPHONY PRESENTS JAZZ AT LINCOLN CENTER ORCHESTRA WITH CHICK COREA at San Diego Jacobs Music Center
Gilbert Castellanos

The group was so good, I didn't realize until I got closer that the soloists were too young to be members of the main attraction. They instead were some of the best musicians studying with founder and music director Gilbert Castellanos and others at the Young Lions Jazz Conservatory. As curator for the Symphony's jazz series Castellanos has been giving some of his proteges a chance to be a part of it. The audience always loves seeing them, even when they aren't yet as skilled as those in the lobby before this concert.

On the mainstage, Corea was a low-key, amiable emcee. He introduced tunes with a little background and bits of humor band members seemed to enjoy as much as the audience, even when it probably wasn't the first time they'd heard them. The program consisted of eight Corea tunes, two arranged by Marsalis and six by other current or previous band members. One of the pianist's most popular compositions, "Armando's Rhumba," was a solid start. It featured a Latin-tinged solo by Michael Rodriquez, who occupies the trumpet-section chair temporarily vacated by Marsalis. Another fine Corea tune followed with Ted Nash soloing on flute in his own arrangement of the beautiful "Windows."

When I'd seen the band in concert before and listened to its recordings under

BWW Review: SAN DIEGO SYMPHONY PRESENTS JAZZ AT LINCOLN CENTER ORCHESTRA WITH CHICK COREA at San Diego Jacobs Music Center
Wynton Marsalis

Marsalis, I was mildly disappointed that he was just one of the guys in a killer trumpet section, never taking the boss's share of solos. I expected something similar from Corea substituting while Marsalis takes a composing break, especially after reading the pianist's San Diego Union Tribune interview a few days before the concert in which he said he was taking his cues as a leader from Basie and Ellington. I don't know which cues he was thinking of, but his role in the band was about as un-Basie or Marsalis-like as possible. The Count rarely did even an eight-bar piano intro before dropping back to his usual brief tasty comments, sometimes just single chords. This concert was closer to a suite for piano and big band. The focus was on Corea. All the tunes were his and he took extended solos on them all. The interview also indicated Corea changed his style when with the band because you can't hear the piano under its hefty sound. What he actually did was crank up the piano mic so you usually could hear it.

But sound balances are tricky in Copley Symphony Hall. Reverb added distortion that gave the band a harsh sound with often unclear separation of sax, trombone and trumpet section-lines. One of the evening's best solos came from altoist Sherman Irby when the band played his arrangement of Corea's "Matrix." Standing at his chair at the center of five saxes, Irby was sometimes barely audible. The other soloists all left their sections to solo at a floor mic stage-left in front of the rhythm section. The resulting quartet sound was much clearer. Many of the concert's most enjoyable moments came when soloists were driven by the terrific rhythmic and harmonic support of Corea, drummer Marion Felder III, and bassist Carlos Henriquez. Tenor man Victor Goines' solo with their backing on Corea's "Litha" in a Marsalis arrangement was a standout.

The Lincoln Center ensemble plays even the toughest of charts with seeming ease and every member has superb technique. Though solo talent is less even, all get a shot in most of the band's concerts. The democratic impulse is laudable, but the best jazz concerts and recordings feature just a few exceptional improvisers. The cheers that came with Corea's offhand mention of his time with "Return to Forever" indicated he was the main draw for many, but as a long-term admirer of big bands from Duke Ellington to Gordon Goodwin, I'd have liked less Corea and more of a few equally talented horn and sax players.

The San Diego Symphony's jazz series under the direction of trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos has been a solid success. Every concert in the series has either sold out or come close. For jazz at an indoor venue that seats nearly 3000, that's amazing. And Castellanos has done it without pandering. No icky "smooth" jazz, or many sure big-draw names--just terrific players, many of them musicians he's known and performed with for years. For information about the next concert in the series and the rest of the San Diego Symphony's schedule visit here.

BWW Review: SAN DIEGO SYMPHONY PRESENTS JAZZ AT LINCOLN CENTER ORCHESTRA WITH CHICK COREA at San Diego Jacobs Music Center

Corea and Castellanos photos courtesy San Diego Symphony, Marsalis Broadway World archive, full band Ron Bierman.

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