Afro-Cuban Ambitions

Jazz at Lincoln Center’s outsized season opener

Pedrito Martinez (singing at left), the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and others perform Wynton Marsalis' "Ochas" in September 2014

Everybody’s always concerned with the whole. The big picture. The end result. But sometimes it’s the parts that are the most interesting. Such was the case at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater on Sept. 19, when the New York institution premiered a new suite by trumpeter and JALC leader Wynton Marsalis. Featuring Marsalis, his orchestra, pianist Chucho Valdés, vocalist-percussionist Pedrito Martinez and others, this performance was the middle of a three-night run opening JALC’s 2014-2015

season. Just about all of the music worked, and one left having taken in something culturally special and entertaining. But it was the puzzle pieces, not the puzzle, that left the deepest impression.

But first a bit about the game. The three-movement, concert-length piece, Ochas, combines jazz and Cuban music-both Valdés, 73, and Martinez, 41, are Cuban-and the sounds were presented in two halves. The 15-piece Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra-piano, bass, drums, five saxophones, three trombones and four trumpets including Marsalis-was augmented throughout by three batá drummers/vocalists (Martinez, Román Diaz and Clemente Medina). Visually, the percussionists added a dose of looseness, of fun: The orchestra members wore gray suits and the trio wore all white, including matching golf-style caps. The second half brought out additional delights: two female vocalists (Denise DeJean and Amma Dawn McKen) and two dancers, one male (Dreiser Durruthy Bambolé) and one female (Yesenia Fernandez Selier). Near the end of the first half and a couple of times in the second, Valdés emerged to replace the orchestra’s pianist, Dan Nimmer. When Valdés would take over, the concert became an event.

On to the parts. Over the course of the night, the music was big but controlled, with short solos and plenty of grooves. There were moments when the percussionists did not play, and times when they played alone. There was a salsa segment and another section that could have been pulled from a blaxploitation film. There was hard bop and a portion that evoked Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. There was bowed bass, anthemic piano, 6/8 time and sad trombones; there was drama and sex and hope and the blues. A good deal happened, but one never felt overwhelmed by what was occurring, perhaps because all of the elements were connected in some way. The music never reached for something it shouldn’t have. It never included anything just because.

Martinez’s voice is a glorious instrument. It’s soothing and soulful and you never have to strain to hear it; it’s always out front and on top. One special moment found Martinez singing over the female vocalists’ backgrounds. And Valdés has a unique voice on piano. His playing is warm and fluid but also miraculously percussive, with more than a hint of the avant-garde thrown in; the dissonance between those aesthetics felt unforced and exciting. He made it all look so easy onstage.

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is also something to marvel at. Elegant, capable and serious, the band makes music that is thick but airy; there is space in the sound, and nothing feels cluttered. It’s a treat to watch players of that caliber work with outside musicians on the same level.