People pay big bucks to see Wynton Marsalis and his combos perform with the likes of Jimmy Buffett, Lenny Kravitz and John Mayer. The concept is as gimmicky as it sounds, the lure for Jazz at Lincoln Center’s annual fundraising galas for its educational programs. United We Swing offers a highlight reel from the 2003-2007 galas (not all, contra the album’s billing, featuring septets). Hence the newest tracks are over a decade old. Do they hold up without the novelty? Sometimes.
The pluses and minuses are fairly predictable. It’s unsurprising, for example, that Audra McDonald’s flawless operatic pipes would succeed brilliantly in the wordless vocal of Duke Ellington’s “Creole Love Call,” and that soulster John Legend has a deft, subtle touch that Marsalis’ septet need only accompany on his own “Please Baby Don’t.” Nor will it stop any hearts that Mayer sounds as phony and soulless singing “I’m Gonna Find Another You” with a jazz nonet as he does everywhere else, or that Buffett’s effort at “Fool’s Paradise” with a 10-piece band contains little to recommend it either to Parrotheads or jazzheads.
There are a few surprises, though, in both the yea and nay columns. James Taylor’s “Mean Old Man” makes a lovely set piece, thanks to a dulcet arrangement (and gorgeous trumpet solo) by Marsalis. A New Orleans gutbucket treatment (also by Marsalis) of Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way” promises silliness; instead, it’s dark and stirringly effective. Elsewhere, yet another Marsalis arrangement accomplishes the unlikely feat of draining the wit and zest from Bob Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” (Dylan’s disinterested vocal doesn’t help), and a Carrie Smith feature on “Empty Bed Blues” is stunningly bland. Fortunately, the revenue at these galas was more consistent than the gimmick.
Listen to the Wynton Marsalis Septet album United We Swing: Best of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Galas on Spotify: