Tuesday, December 11, 2007

PBS Stomps Off Holiday Jazz

Whenever PBS broadcasts jazz programming, I have to give it breaking news treatment. After all, I have been critical of the network for using Ken Burns Jazz series as a carrot during pledge drives, and then failing to deliver regular jazz programming throughout the rest of the year (terms like “bait and switch” may have been bandied about). So PBS definitely deserves credit for broadcasting Wynton Marsalis and members of the J@LC band live from their home in the House of Swing (Rose Hall at the Time Warner Center) in Red Hot Holiday Stomp, as part of the Live from Lincoln Center series.

The first half of the program was a well conceived set consisting largely of swinging versions of holiday favorites. Literally everyone loves jazz Christmas music, but a lot of folks just do not realize it. After all, jazz musician Vince Guaraldi was responsible the beloved music of the ever-popular A Charlie Brown Christmas. Here Marsalis and company run through some crowd pleasing Christmas standards like “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” “Carol of the Bells,” “Santa Clause is Coming to Town,” and what Marsalis called “that old Christmas favorite:” “Sheik of Araby.”

If not revolutionary, there were some very entertaining solos, especially from Wessel “Warmdaddy” Anderson on alto and Wycliffe “Pinecone” Gordon on trombone—it is great to hear them back in the band. “Sweet Papa” Don Vappie, who according to Marsalis “got up out of his sick bed to come out here tonight,” probably supplied the highlight of the set with his soulful vocal on “Blue Christmas.”

The second half of the set was made up of “Music, Deep Rivers in My Soul,” a musical collaboration between Marsalis and poet Maya Angelou. S. Epatha Merkerson conveyed strength and warmth in her delivery of Angelou’s words, but the text itself seemed slight compared to the heft of Marsalis’s major works on similar themes, like Blood on the Fields, Congo Square, and In This House on This Morning. Though impressive, the energy of Jared Grimes accompanying tap dancing is probably best experienced live, and was not well served by the camera work last night. Again, the band acquitted itself well. In particular, Ali Jackson’s concluding drum solo was a perfect conclusion, showing wit and dexterity, rather than bombast.

Surprisingly, the typically witty Marsalis did not bring his A game for between-tune banter, but the only really embarrassing aspect of the broadcast was Glenn Close’s gushy “interview” with Marsalis. If you can forget that, which should not be hard to do, it was entertaining showcase of what J@LC does best. (Look for it if your local affiliate did not carry it live last night.) Even if you are not down with Marsalis and his conceptions of jazz, this is great band. It has most of what I consider their classic line-up from the late 1990’s, with fantastic musicians, like Anderson, Gordon, Joe Temperly, Victor Goines, Ron Westray, and of course Marsalis himself, making Holiday Stomp a solid, if all too infrequent, jazz feature on Public Television.