The Democracy! Suite attempts to answer two inextricable questions: How can you make new collaborative art during a pandemic that requires separation? And how does that art best address the issues confronting us at this fraught time? These eight digitally released tracks by a seven-piece subset of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra—part of a “virtual performance” recorded at the orchestra’s NYC home base that subsequently “played” a couple of dozen performing arts centers in the U.S.—are intended to demonstrate “that the joy and beauty of jazz can bring us all closer together,” Wynton Marsalis says in a press release. They succeed at their job, as this music is nothing if not tight. But The Democracy! Suite works just fine on its own terms as well: You need not know any of the background laid out in the above paragraph to fall into its considerable groove.
The program begins with “Be Present,” a solidly swinging number that features robust solos by Marsalis (who steps up on every track), pianist Dan Nimmer, and trombonist Elliot Mason. It exudes something of a retro vibe and, given the overall work’s serious intent, seems surprisingly cheerful. For that matter, none of this music feels somber, fearful, or detached. Even the more reflective pieces—the chill “Deeper Than Dreams,” the explorative “Sloganize, Patronize, Realize, Revolutionize…”—retain an optimistic quality. The practically giddy “Ballot Box Bounce,” which features no less than six of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra players taking solo turns (Ted Nash’s flute and Walter Blanding’s tenor saxophone are superb), rushes along determinedly, as if it’s late to work.
Perhaps there’s an underlying message here that doesn’t need to be hammered home: that the way we get through all this is by keeping our heads held high, working together, and remembering how to smile.
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