Review: Wynton Marsalis with The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Septet: The Democracy! Suite


Over the Thanksgiving weekend, the University Musical Society released a digital presentation of jazz trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis and The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Septet performing his new composition, "The Democracy! Suite," in a virtual concert filmed at the Frederick P. Rose Hall in New York City.

Marsalis usually visits Ann Arbor every year and often brings special guests with him to play at Hill Auditorium, but this year’s concert was virtual due to the pandemic.

"The Democracy! Suite" is an eight-part response to the political, social, and public health crises we’re dealing with today. The swinging grooves and lyrical jazz was composed to uplift, inspire, and galvanize listeners to work together for a better future.

But what made "The Democracy! Suite" feel different was the commentary Marsalis gave behind it.

In an interview he did to preview "The Democracy! Suite," Marsalis said, "A democracy is a living, breathing organism that enables individual choice in elevating the common cause. This is also the objective of jazz. In our music, we have the personal freedom to improvise a new set of possibilities every time we play and we also share a common objective to find and maintain a collective balance known as swinging.”  

Before the “It Comes ‘Round Again" section, Marsalis said, “When someone is lost in the field with no compass, they just walk around in a circle. I guess everything is spinning, the earth is spinning, we’re going around the sun. So many things are going on. Everything is in a cycle. So this is about our different periods of social upheaval that we have at different times."

The words he spoke about the suite became as important as the music he played. As a listener, I felt a connection to the music that was different than in his previous Ann Arbor shows.

In the opener, "Be Present," Marsalis and the septet played a mid-tempo groove under lush chords with each performer given room to shine at some point in the piece. As they played, New York City sparkled behind them, adding great visuals to the music. The big band in Marsalis' past Ann Arbor shows was awesome, but the septet felt more intimate and the setup showcased each performer’s talent, contributing to the thought-provoking nature of the music.

I especially enjoyed "Ballot Box Bounce," a piece inspired by the importance of voting and enfranchisement that addressed this year’s election. The song itself was lively and uptempo, capturing the urgency of casting your ballot and what voters feel like going to the polls to make their voices heard. 

The Covid-19 pandemic was examined in "Deeper Than Dreams" and "Out Amongst the People," along with the grief and frustration that accompanies it. Marsalis knows all too well the pain this disease has caused. He lost his father, jazz pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis Jr., to complications from the virus in April. When listening to these melodies, I imagined a person dancing in the street in front of the septet, trying to release the stress of this year through their moves. Marsalis also talked of how important music is in these times because of its ability to heal.

The final section, "That’s When All Will See," was a rousing swing that promoted hope for better days ahead. Marsalis introduced it by saying, "We have to remember that the world looks at us and we want to lead in welcoming people into our feeling. It’s very important in this time."

Marsalis always provides beautiful music for his fans, but this time was especially memorable. In a year where we’ve all been affected in some way or another by various sources of pain, it’s commendable that Marsalis uses his personal experience to find a way to create and inspire us. Whether live in person or broadcasting into your home, Marsalis knows how to put on a show. Hopefully next time, the funk and swing can be enjoyed in the familiar seats we all know and love.

Sean Copeland is a recording artist, music producer, writer, and AADL staff member.