Wynton Marsalis never was going to be the next Miles Davis. He was never going to be the next Duke Ellington, either.
No matter how much his '80s advent in jazz resulted in people eventually acting as if he were a little of both, his greatest work never will be thought of as anything close to the greatest work of Davis and Ellington.
What he became that neither Davis nor Ellington ever even dreamed of becoming was a singular jazz boss, power broker and patron. Through his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Marsalis has a clout inside jazz that no other jazz musician ever had.
Obviously, much of that can be attributed to an era of decline in jazz audiences -- which some have attributed to his education-oriented jazz neoclassicism, an argument that can be had until doomsday -- but what has been equally obvious over the past decade is his increasing generosity as Lincoln Center's jazz director.
The concert he and the Lincoln Center Orchestra presented Saturday night at the University at Buffalo wasn't a showcase for Marsalis at all but rather for the band and for one of the band's most creative members, composer/reedman Ted Nash, who composed the work that dominated the evening, "Portrait in Seven Shades."
Great jazz, it wasn't. Great fun, though, it was -- a very entertaining bit of jazz program music designed to show off the entire 15-piece orchestra.
The whole evening, in fact, was devoted not to classics of jazz repertory -- Ellington, Count Basie etc. -- but new jazz compositions reflecting the relationship of jazz and art. And that was where Nash's seven-movement suite -- devoted to art in the Museum of Modern Art -- was extraordinarily imaginative and completely engaging if not uniformly convincing.
I certainly understood how saxophonist Victor Goines' soprano saxophone shimmers and floating phrases suggested the art of Claude Monet but it beats me how the Monet movement's opening tom-tom drumming has anything to do with those massive Monet water lillies.
On the other hand, a movement inspired by Salvador Dali's "The Persistence of Memory" threw a 1 3/8 time signature at us and sliding tones from trumpet player Marcus Printup designed, said Nash, to evoke the painting's melting clocks. And drummer Ali Jackson's solo over band hand-clapping was certainly in Dali's style of public exhibitionism.
Matisse, according to Nash, is one of his favorite artists -- "I love his colors, his shapes and his goldfish," he confided with typical wit -- and the movement had everything from a very sweet-sounding dance band baritone saxophone from Joe Temperley to bassist Carlos Enrqiuez accompanying himself with buzzing Slam Stewart hums.
Matisse though -- whose work often alluded to jazz -- seems diabolically difficult to suggest musically. Even worse is Van Gogh, as Nash admitted when he said he didn't even try to depict those thick, bold, ecstatic brush strokes but rather gave the piece a biographical vocal, sung by trombonist Victor Gardner.
Best, I thought, were the Chagall movement, with Nash and Goines doing two-clarinet klezmer dancing along with Walter Blandings Jr. on soprano, and the Jackson Pollock finale. My instinct tells me that Nash may not have been all that crazy about Sherman Irby throwing Ornette Coleman's "Blues Turnaround" into his "Pollock" solo -- too easy; too much like conventional bebop quotemanship -- but I thought it was one of the evening's wittiest moments -- especially since Nash's introduction to the movement mentioned that Pollock's abstractions on canvas preceded Coleman's in jazz.
Marsalis himself introduced the first two pieces -- one by Doug Wambley inspired by painter Stuart Davis' "The Memo Pad" and a fine, jaunty Bill Frisell blues supposedly inspired by Winslow Homer, in which the orchestra's leader took his best solo of the night, a plunger-muted beauty full of musical eruptions, interjections, parentheses. (Not surprisingly, when he plays his trumpet, Marsalis often sounds like a man with a lot to say, which he also is.)
What that Winslow Homer blues had to do with the paintings of the great American realist I never will know, but then Marsalis himself admitted that when he and Frisell talked about Homer, they both decided they liked both his work and his name, too.
But it was impossible not to find that kind of playfulness appealing. It characterized the whole, surprisingly modest and generous evening.
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis
Saturday in the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts, North Campus, Amherst.