Live in Cuba arrives as a “big” record. Wynton Marsalis is a celebrity even outside the jazz community. The band is the repertory orchestra of a unique and powerful jazz institution. The album is the debut release of the Blue Engine label, intended as a “new platform” for Jazz at Lincoln Center. The 2010 recording comes from a newsworthy concert series at the Teatro Mella in Havana, made possible by President Obama’s easing of travel restrictions to Cuba.
It is “big” but not especially important. Its shortcomings do not derive from technical deficiencies in the orchestra. These 15 guys are accomplished. They swing hard. The problem mostly has to do with the centrality of invention to the jazz art form. Live in Cuba too often sounds like historicism for its own sake. Public domain items like “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” originals like Marsalis’ “The Sanctified Blues” and four Ellington and Basie pieces suggest fealty to the past rather than creative rediscovery. They are dated in structure and worldview. Soloists like tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding and pianist Dan Nimmer pursue vintage tonalities, devices and licks. The trumpet players (Marsalis, Marcus Printup, Ryan Kisor) love pixie mutes and plungers. The affirmational message of the party-time frivolity is diminished by gimmickry and self-conscious cuteness.
The 16 tracks use 12 different arrangers. In the miscellany, there are common threads. One is an Afro-Cuban emphasis. (Whether the best use of a New York band is to play Cuban music for Cubans is a pertinent question.) Another is the dominance of fast screamers that show off ensemble cohesion (Ellington’s “Braggin’ in Brass”) or individual chops (Dizzy Gillespie’s “Things to Come,” torched by Marsalis). There is some nice stuff. Marsalis’ “Spring Yaoundé,” the only ballad, is a pretty feature for its composer. Ellington’s “Sunset and the Mocking Bird” has a quaint, suave, seductive baritone saxophone solo by Joe Temperley.
In 2015, the U.S. and Cuba reestablished full diplomatic relations. Perhaps orchestras like Maria Schneider’s can now visit Havana, and expose Cuban audiences to more aspects of the current state-of-the-art in big-band jazz.