The Wynton Marsalis Septet was a hot holiday ticket in town. Marsalis was playing at Dizzy’s Club Coca–Cola (Jazz at Lincoln Center) for two weeks, including New Year’s Eve. All the shows were sold out at $125 per ticket, and New Year’s Eve was also sold out at $375 for the early show and $550 for the later champagne toast show.
These intimate shows gave folks an opportunity to see Marsalis perform live and up close in a smaller configuration as opposed to when he’s usually seen as the director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. His septet was an all-star cast of Eric Reed, piano; Victor Goines, saxophone and clarinet; Wessell “Warmdaddy” Anderson, saxophone; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Reginald Veal, bass; and Herlin Riley, drums.
The septet was mean and wasted no time on stage from the moment they hit the first tune until the last. A huge standing ovation and loud demands to return to the panoramic stage happily forced them to return for a final encore. They covered everything from shout, straight jazz and romping New Orleans marches to the blues. It was just the boys offering a brief history of what jazz is all about. All of these great musicians got a chance to offer their exhilarating improvisations as soloists and unified as a combined unit. You could feel the heat and intensity.
For Marsalis, it gave audiences a chance to see him cut loose outside of his “intelligencia jazz penthouse,” where he reins as the artistic and musical director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. These showings let people know that his “street cred” is still good. Seeing him constantly in a big band setting, people tend to forget that this nine-time Grammy Award and Pulitzer Prize winner can throw down. His long, uninterrupted riffs; that hip mellow sound of soul and his rich, bold tone are his signatures. Lest we forget, Marsalis played with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, which was a breeding ground for all up-and-coming musicians. Many talk about how he is the anointed one of jazz. That may be so, but be assured, he can play and hold his own, and with the musicians he puts together as a leader, he can’t be a slouch.
Let’s just say that for 2013, this was definitely one of the memorable concerts of the year.
There are no claims here of being a Chris Botti fan. In fact, the trumpeter, who hails from Portland, Ore., has made an annual sojourn to New York City’s Blue Note Jazz Club, where he recently completed his ninth year as the club’s “Holiday Residency.” He performed the last three weeks of December, including the week of New Year’s Eve. All the shows were sold out, including the New Year’s Eve performance, at $145 per ticket and above.
Still, there was no interest for me until a college buddy from out of town called and stated, “I’m coming to the city so we can hang and go check out Chris Botti. That cat is bad. I got to see him.”
OK, for me, he’s just a smooth jazz cat who is great at dancing on the fence between jazz and pop. Just this year, he won the Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album.
Being a friend and sincere Rattler (Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University), it was up to me to secure tickets and hang with my college partner; plus, I had never seen Botti live, so it would be a new experience. Sunday night, we hit the Blue Note. We got there early at 7 p.m. for the 8 p.m. show, and the place was already packed and four-deep at the bar.
One middle-aged woman standing next to me noted, “I’m so glad I got in. There are so many people, and I drove in from Connecticut. A couple in front of me was from Australia and said they came in because of the long lines outside, ‘it must be a good show if so many people were on line.’”
The moment arrived. Botti and his quintet hit the tiny stage. They opened with a mid-uptempo tune, and one could notice immediately Botti does have a smooth, easy tone. His rendition of “The Very Thought of You” was truly outstanding. His sound was smooth as butter, with feelings that touched your toes, and vocalist Sy Smith was the icing.
His bio noted he really didn’t take to jazz until he heard Miles Davis playing “My Funny Valentine,” which could be why his repertoire is somewhat ballad heavy, and that isn’t a bad thing.
Botti’s band, which has been together for 10 years, is basically an intuitive machine. The members include; pianist Geoffrey Keezer, keyboardist Andy Ezrin, guitarist Leonardo Amuedo, drummer Billy Kilson, guest violinist Serena McKinney, and vocalists Sy Smith and George Uomsky. Botti, wearing a blue suit and tie, noted the band travels 300 days per year.
At one point, as the band went to the improvisation, a nearby person noted, “That’s not jazz.” No, it wasn’t. The guitarist had stepped into some funk, and the band didn’t let up. Their version of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” had some funk muscle with vocal assistance from Smith, who was dressed in African attire. Botti’s repertoire covers smooth jazz, pop and a tad of R&B.
The audience consisted of young folks, the middle-aged and those in between. He has managed to merge the genres of smooth jazz and pop. He has his own style—a mellow, mid-range bravado and high-pitched keys with a nice muted horn, probably practicing while listening to the perfection of Miles.
May everyone have a great, healthy and prosperous New Year. And for everyone I have met who honor me by saying you read this column, I am truly grateful. Please keep reading and swinging; jazz is our history and future, like this Black newspaper. Thanks for your continued support.