First-time visitors to New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center are often surprised, when watching the house band perform, that Wynton Marsalis, its undisputed superstar, is seated in the JALC Orchestra’s back row—just another band member. As far as the trumpeter is concerned, this is a group of equals, one composed of many leaders. One of them, bassist Carlos Henriquez, served as music director when the Panamanian vocal giant Rubén Blades teamed up with the orchestra for a series of shows in November 2014. That performance, which includes numbers penned by Blades and tunes from the Great American Songbook, seriously sizzles.
Marsalis, of course, is present—he’s the featured soloist on the first and final songs of the set, “Ban Ban Quere” and “Patria,” the former written by Calixto Varela Gomez and the latter by Blades. Several other members of the JLCO step out front at various times throughout the course of the evening; soprano saxophonist Victor Goines adds a dollop of sensuality to the already luxuriant ballad “Apóyate En Mi Alma” and four of the group’s drums/percussion battery blast off on the Blades medley that closes out the set proper.
But however consistently exciting and flawless the big band is, it’s Blades himself who dominates. His command as a vocal stylist, singing first in English and then in Spanish, is beyond reproach. On the Jimmy McHugh-Dorothy Fields chestnut “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” he rides the orchestra’s swing with effortlessness, hears out the solos, then decides to take matters into his own hands, directing the various elements until it’s become one churning rhythm machine. Midway he stops to exclaim, “Yeah! Yeah!” and you know just where he’s coming from.