Big bands don’t come any bolder or more beautiful than the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The current lineup, which includes 15 players and is led by the inimitable Wynton Marsalis, made quite an impression on the audience Sunday night at the Granada, and they did so right out of the gate by kicking the evening off with an entire opening set devoted to compositions by the great Duke Ellington. “Happy-Go-Lucky Local” is a sweet and funky blues that will be more familiar to most listeners under the name “Night Train,” which got attached to one section of the song when it broke away and became a staple for the road bands of later performers such as James Brown. From there the train stopped at “Mood Indigo,” “Braggin’ in Brass,” “Satin Doll,” and “Lady of the Lavender Mist.” While all of these selections were played with exemplary flare and personality, it was the final number of the first set, “Chinoiserie,” a cut from the 1970s, which was the revelation. Dense, vividly polyrhythmic, and powered by modal soloing, this was Ellington channeling the spirit of John Coltrane’s big band experiment, The Africa Brass sessions.
After the intermission, we heard a kaleidoscopic set that ranged sonically all the way from Gerry Mulligan to Ornette Coleman. The highlights were many, and two of them were attributable to the arranging skills of reed and flute man Ted Nash, who contributed the excellent charts for both Chick Corea’s “Windows” and Ornette Coleman’s “Una Muy Bonita.” It was a thrill to hear Marsalis tackle the eccentricities of the Coleman piece, which is filled with unexpected harmonic leaps and rhythmic surprises. The final piece of the main concert, a Marsalis composition called “Menditzorrotza Swing,” was both unusual and spectacular, and two small group encores gave the audience something to remember from Marsalis the trumpeter, who continues to define his instrument for this era.