The Lincoln Center Of The Universe shifted a couple of thousand miles to the west Thursday night as The Smith Center played host to one of the world’s greatest jazz bands.
No offense to zen masters everywhere, but a roomful of them couldn’t have less ego than the 15 ambassadors from Planet Cool who were the perfect mix of all business and all fun in a super-tight 10-tune set.
The band’s mere presence says a lot about what The Smith Center has done for Las Vegas on the world cultural map. Then there was the concert itself.
At first, Wynton Marsalis’ voice was a disembodied “welcome” — but a quick look around the stage showed that instead of playing host from in front of the band, he was seated in the back row with the trumpets and simply had a microphone there to use when needed. Just one of the guys. Nice touch.
The concert kick-started with some deep soul trumpet in “The Creation” — a movement from “God’s Trombones” by the band’s own Chris Crenshaw. Almost all of the night’s charts were arranged by various onstage cats — another nice touch showing the musicianship extends well beyond what and how they play.
Next up: a latin-flavored extravaganza that Wynton let on was kind of hard to pronounce: “Menditzorrotza Swing,” the last of the 12-movement Vitoria Suite featuring an extended riff with Marsalis and the rhythm section taking us along on a ride to Spain’s Basque region.
Then some smooth ’60s-style cocktail jazz in which the musical art was ripped from museum walls and placed casually and comfortably in our lap. You might not recognize the name “Ceora,” but Google it and you’ll instantly recognize the melodic hook, fine-tuned to a precision touch by the swaying metronome shoulders of pianist Dan Nimmer.
The love these guys have for what each other does was on display all night: on almost every solo the other players nodded and smiled at one another with an occasional “you got that right!” drifting from the stage.
Leading up to intermission was an impeccable double shot of Duke Ellington. First, “Mood Indigo,” played as Duke intended: a trio of trombone (Vince Gardner), clarinet (Walt Blanding) and trumpet (Kenny Rampton) gathered around a downstage microphone. If they weren’t standing right in front of us, I would’ve sworn we were listening to a pristine 78 rpm on the Victrola.
And Rampton wasn’t just playing that trumpet. With his plunger-mute softly pumping, he was Duke’s soul wailing. Gorgeous.
Wynton didn’t let him off the hook, either. Turns out Rampton was back in his old stomping grounds, having graduated from Bonanza High School. Marsalis ratted him out, saying the reason he made sure Rampton got some front-and-center solo time was that his first trumpet teacher was in the house.
Then — after an off-mic comment from Rampton — Wynton quickly added, “His first two trumpet teachers are here!”
There were guffaws all around before we were told that there needed to be some sax solos soon or those guys would get jealous. So it was “Chinoiserie” from Ellington’s Afro-Eurasian Eclipse Suite (“one of the greatest titles ever written,” Marsalis noted).
After the break, the second half flew by all too quickly. From bassist Carlos Henriquez’s arrangement of the Miles Davis-Charlie Parker standard “Donna Lee” to Gerry Mulligan’s “42nd and Broadway,” with a stop to soak up Sherman Irving’s “Insatiable Hunger,” a masterpiece that might have been subtitled “Middle East Side Story” because of its thriller spy-movie soundtrack feel that featured drummer Ali Jackson making just one tambourine sound like an entire percussion section.
Adding an extra helping of frosting on the rhythmically complex musical layer cake, trombonist Gardner let loose with vocals on a jumping version of “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby!”
And we closed out with Eddie Durham’s “Stage West.” Perhaps a metaphor for the band’s home for the night in Las Vegas.