It is an unusual opening number for an orchestral jazz concert/revue: a strikingly evocative solo rendition of the legendary Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.” Even more unusual, the wonderful pianist, Dalton Ridenhour, who has been channeling Joplin since age nine, is not the nominal ‘star’ of the proceedings. That status belongs to identical-twin musician-brothers Peter and Will Anderson, who conceived, directed and are producers of “The Journey of Jazz,” running through December 11 at 59E59 Theater A.
And a Grade A journey it is, traversed chronologically from that sensational 1920s rag and culminating with the show’s title tune, written in 2022 by Peter Anderson. Along the way, the brothers and their ensemble stop at nearly twenty other significant jazz-stations, each re-created musically and enriched by projections and film clips.
The ensemble is a sextet, but with eleven instruments represented – the Andersons play seven between them – the ‘orchestra’ designation is appropriate. That plurality, plus the varied and distinctive styles represented along the journey, stave off any sense of boredom or repetition. While substantial portions of the instrumental solos are improvised – and wonderfully so – “The Journey of Jazz” is not a jam session. Rather, it is a curated tour through the development and innovation of America’s purest art form over the past Century. It is in part educational, in that you are guided through evolving jazz stylings: that opening ragtime, Dixieland, swing, be-bop, esoterica (think Monk), and more.
The videos, scripted and narrated by Will Anderson, are informative palate cleansers: clips of Louis, Bix and Bird; Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller; Miles, Brubeck and Coltrane; even a quote from Yogi Berra, who, asked if he could explain jazz, said “I can’t, but I will. Ninety percent of all jazz is half improvisation. The other half is the part people play.”
The parts these six skilled musicians play are culled from those storied jazz masters’ performances, among them Duke Ellington’s “The Mooch” (and Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train”) and the Benny Goodman 1938 Carnegie Hall sensation “Sing, Sing, Sing,” abbreviated here (it ran twelve-plus minutes), but long enough for drummer Paul Wells to evoke Gene Krupa’s dexterity.
Peter Anderson plays tenor and soprano saxophones and clarinet as if born to them; brother Will is equally master of the alto and baritone saxes, the clarinet and, trillingly, the flute. All those instruments serve the repertoire well: “Body and Soul” a la Coleman Hawkins and the Basie band’s “Lester [Young] Leaps In” are standouts. Three-part harmonies with the brothers and splendid trumpeter Wayne Tucker are especially sweet to the ear; the quick-tempo Charlie Parker-Dizzy Gillespie “Salt Peanuts” also gets a workout, complete with the spoken triplets. Standup bass is the foundation of any jazz ensemble; Clovis Nicolas’s playing is as solid as his fingers are nimble.
There is more, all of it superbly played: Trane’s “My Favorite Things”; the Brubeck-Desmond “Blue Rondo”; video snippets of “Charlie Brown’s Christmas,” with Chuck and the gang really grooving, and Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther Theme.”
I am a life-long jazz fan and of an age where I saw/heard many of the “Journey of Jazz” stalwarts in person. Not Joplin or Bix or Glenn Miller (way early), but Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and late-career Benny Goodman at the Newport Jazz Festival and on tour; the Basie band, Lester Young, Brubeck, Diz and others in clubs and concert. The fresh renditions I heard last week on East 59th Street jogged memories. Wayne Tucker standing stock still for Miles Davis’s muted “Summertime” brought me to tears, which may be a bridge too far for you. But the selections you will hear during “The Journey of Jazz” are as close as you will ever come to live performances by America’s jazz giants. Peter and Will Anderson have summarized a semester of jazz studies into ninety minutes. If you are even a moderate fan, don’t miss it.
At 59E59 (the address) Theater A through December 11. Tues.-Fri. at 7pm; Sat. and Sun. at 2:00pm and 4:30pm. Tickets ($45.50-$60.50): www.59e59.org