By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • May 9, 2008
If you're launching a jazz education program, there's no better friend to have than Wynton Marsalis. The acclaimed trumpeter may be the country's best-known jazz musician, and he's virtually a spokesman for the music itself. So it was fitting that Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra inaugurated the new Capitol Jazz Project (a joint venture by the Washington Performing Arts Society and the D.C. public school system to support music in middle schools) with a program of traditional jazz at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Wednesday night.
Marsalis has caught a lot of flak over the years for his conservatism; he's notoriously disdainful of most jazz after 1960 (including late Coltrane, fusion and free jazz) and is often accused of merely popularizing the classics, instead of being a true innovator. Wednesday's concert seemed to bear that out: Marsalis and his 15-piece band played familiar works by Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington, with some newer pieces by Marsalis himself and members of the group that stayed safely within traditional bounds.
And while the playing was superb -- this is a tightly knit ensemble that cuts through even the most complex music with jaw-dropping precision -- the evening felt distinctly tame and well-mannered, as if the band were gliding on well-worn tracks instead of channeling the spontaneous, risk-taking ferocity that makes jazz what it is. Rather than edge, there was elegance: Marsalis's shimmering, impressionistic take on the "Pollock" section of "Portrait in Seven Shades" (by the gifted reed player Ted Nash) was drop-dead gorgeous, and Joe Temperley's eloquent bass clarinet solo on Ellington's "The Single Petal of a Rose" won't soon be forgotten by anyone who heard it. The sold-out crowd gave Marsalis a standing ovation after the show closed with his fine, driving "Vitoria Suite."