Courtesy: Blue Engine Records
Late last year, Blue Engine Records announced it was going to open 2020 with a bang by releasing four new live recordings from The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis. Three full months into the year, the label has stuck to its busy schedule, releasing the group’s live recording of its performance of music from Wayne Shorter, and of Shermann Irby’s Inferno, as well as a presentation of the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s timeless record Black Brown & Beige. The label continued that packed slate of new recordings last week with the release of JLCO’s fourth live recording so far this yeear, Rock Chalk Suite. Released March 20, the 63-minute recording is another wonderfully enjoyable performance from the collective. It is a work that apparently will appeal to sports fans, too, thanks to its central concept, which will be discussed shortly. The arrangements that make up the body of the recording add even more interest to its presentation, and will be addressed a little later. The recording’s production and mixing round out its most important elements, and will also be discussed later. Each item noted here is key in its own special way to the whole of Rock Chalk Suite. All things considered, this latest live recording from JLCO is yet another one of this year’s top new live CDs.
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis’ latest live recording Rock Chalk Suite is another impressive new live offering from the organization that deserves a spot on any critic’s list of the year’s top new live CDs. That statement is supported in part by the concept at the heart of the recording. As noted in information provided about the recording, its concept bases each of its 15 songs on one of the famous basketball players from none other than the University of Kansas. That includes members of the men’s and women’s team. One might immediately begin to scratch one’s head wondering how such a concept came to life. The answer to that question is that the recording was meant to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the construction of the university’s Lied Center. Given, the Lied center has never hosted KU basketball games, being a cultural arts center, but that aside, KU students, staff and alums will appreciate the very fact that this group recorded this entire performance in dedication to the university in so many facets. Few if any music acts from any genre can say they have dedicated an entire recording – whether studio or live – to a college and its rich history. To that end, this is really unique, and sets a solid foundation for the recording.
The foundation set by Rock Chalk Suite’s premise is strengthened by the arrangements that make up the body of the 15-song recording. It is important to re-state here that each arrangement is meant to pay tribute to a specific member of KU’s basketball program throughout the years. Figures, such as Paul Pierce, Jo Jo White and Bill Houghland are honored along with the likes of Mario Chalmers, Charlie B. Black and Lynette Woodard throughout the performance. ‘C.B.’s Theme,’ which pays tribute to Black, is a wonderful classic 1960s style work that conjures thoughts of works from the likes of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, the Miles Davis Quintet and the Chet Baker Quartet. That is evident through the horn arrangements, the dynamic changes and the subtleties in the work’s piano and percussion lines. Considering the success that KU’s men’s basketball program enjoyed during his time as a member of the team, it makes sense that this song would be so light and upbeat. The light, bouncy approach to the song serves well to illustrate the happiness that must have flowed through each player and the university in whole during his time with the team.
In contrast to ‘C.B.’s Theme,’ ‘Third Quarter’ is a stark contrast. The song pays tribute to KU and former NBA star Nick Collison. This work is more reserved than ‘C.B.’s Theme’ and some of the recording’s other works. It could be argued that maybe the title and vibe in the song are a reflection of how understated Collison’s career was. He led the Jayhwks to two consecutive Final Four appearances during his career at the university. He was the NCAA Player of the Year during the 2002-03 season; Big 12 Player of the Year during the same season and was a first-team All-American. Those are some pretty hefty accolades, but he apparently never rose to the superstar level of some of his counterparts, such as Carmelo Anthony. He did go on to play with the NBA’s Seattle Supersonics and Oklahoma City Thunder, but was the 12th overall pick in the NBA’s draft after his graduation from KU. So yes, he was successful, not at the level of other NCAA standouts from KU and other schools. Of course, this is all this critic’s interpretation, and could be wholly inaccurate. So, it should not be taken as gospel. Regardless, the fact of the matter remains that this song boasts its own share of entertainment with its combination of woodwinds, piano, light percussion and standup bass. The arrangement will put anyone at ease.
‘The Ponderous Pachyderm of the Planks,’ which pays tribute to Clyde Lovellete, is another example of the importance of this performance’s arrangements. It’s fitting that a song about Lovellette would basically call him a pachyderm. He was a giant in many ways, physically and in his accomplishments. Lovelette stood six-feet, nine-inches in height, which is very tall. Given, elephants are much taller, but in comparison to most other plays of his day and present, he clearly was “as big as an elephant.” His ability to make one-handed shots during his professional career draws images of someone his height almost taking huge steps down the court, a la an elephant, and making those shots. Looking at his college career, he led the team to the 1952 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship, earned MVP status and scored what was then a record 141 points along the way. He was named first-team All-American twice during his college career, too. As an added highlight, he also won gold with the USA Men’s Basketball team at the 1952 Summer Olympics, not long after leading the Jayhawks to the NCAA title. He was the team’s leading scorer during the games. Lovelette’s life after basketball was humble, finding him working as a farmer and Sheriff and even worked at a faith-based school helping at-risk youths. Considering all of these accolades, it makes sense why the arrangement presents a certain swagger and bombast. That energy is about as big as he was along with his career. It’s just one more way in which the recording’s arrangements serve to show their importance to the whole of this presentation. Between this arrangement, the others noted and the rest of the featured arrangements, each does its own part to properly honor KU’s program and its members. When considered along with the very concept of joining sports and music in this fashion, the two elements make this record even more engaging and entertaining. They are not the recording’s only key elements. The recording’s production and mixing round out its most important elements.
The production and mixing that went into Rock Chalk Suite is just as impressive as that of JLCO’s past live recordings. Whether the arrangements are upbeat or more reserved in their energies, whether they are more lively or subdued, each member of the orchestra has his/her performance expertly balanced with that of his/her fellow musicians. The horns lead the way throughout the majority of the record, given, but the subtleties of the piano are there, too, as are those of the drums and percussion. Every part gets its own attention, and in turn, each line is heard perfectly. The end result is a presentation that is just as easy on the ears because of the content as for the content’s aesthetics. Those behind that work are to be commended for their continued attention to every finer detail. Keeping this in mind along with the value of the recording’s content and its foundation, all three elements join to make Rock Chalk Suite a work that is most certainly a slam dunk for sports fans, jazz aficionados and music lovers alike. Yes, that awful pun was intended.
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s latest live recording Rock Chalk Suite is a work that will appeal not just to jazz lovers, but to fans of college basketball — and specifically to fans of the Kansas Jayhawks – and to music lovers in general. That is proven in the very concept that the recording is a tribute to a college basketball program. That is unique to say the very least. The arrangements do an applause-worthy job of paying tribute to some of the program’s most notable names. The recording’s production and mixing put the finishing touch to the presentation. Each item noted is important in its own way to the whole of this presentation. All things considered, they make this recording deserving of its own trophy. More information on this and other titles from the Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchesta with Wynton Marsalis is available online at:
More information on this and other titles from Blue Engine Records is available online at:
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