Who says jazz can't draw an audience? On Sunday, Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra presented a performance of uncompromising big-band jazz to a wildly appreciative audience at the sold-out Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
It's been 28 years since the ever-youthful Marsalis made his Washington debut, and by now it seems clear that the Lincoln Center Orchestra - JLCO, for short - may be his greatest achievement.
Before the concert, Marsalis was honored for his work with the Capitol Jazz Project, a middle-school jazz curriculum he developed for the D.C. Public Schools in collaboration with the Washington Performing Arts Society, which presented the concert. At a time when other school systems are cutting arts programs, the Capitol Jazz Project is growing, and many of its students performed earlier in the evening on the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage.
Marsalis pointed out that he first met several members of his band in their early teens, when they were first getting acquainted with jazz in school. One of them, bass player Carlos Henriquez, has become an anchor of the JCLO's rhythm section.
Henriquez wrote one of the concert's strongest pieces, "Two-Three's Adventure," drawn from the orchestra's recent tour of Cuba. (The "two-three" in the title comes from the pattern of the Cuban clave rhythm.) The exuberant tune showed off the full firepower of the 15-piece band, with a blazing trumpet section, a swinging alto saxophone solo by Sherman Irby and sizzling trumpet work by Kenny Rampton.
Young trombonist Christopher Crenshaw composed the appealingly retro-styled "Bearden (The Block)," inspired by the paintings of Romare Bearden. Amid various shifts in rhythm and tone, tenor saxophonist Victor Goines purred a lush, dreamlike solo that was pure honey.
A recent composition by Marsalis himself, "The Tree of Freedom," was a portrait of the Basque region of Spain, accented with dynamic swirls of rhythm and color.
Not everything in the concert, however, was a complete success. Two tunes by Chick Corea were at least one too many, and a couple of other numbers fell flat.
It was a shame that the JCLO didn't play anything by Duke Ellington on a visit to his home town, but there was some consolation in a memorable version of "I Left My Baby," a blues first recorded by Count Basie in the 1930s.
Holding his trombone in one hand, Crenshaw sang the down-home vocals, but the brightest spotlight shone on Marcus Printup, whose brilliant trumpet solo alternately shook the walls and seemed to squeeze tears from his horn.
The audience erupted with a huge ovation, overjoyed by the spirit of jazz.