“Trumpet-playing band leader from New Orleans” must be one of the world’s most intimidating job descriptions. Who could possibly fill the giant shoes of Louis Armstrong and Wynton Marsalis? Yet Irvin Mayfield-experienced and savvy at the young-for-jazz age of 30-steps up to the billing with style. The 16-member New Orleans Jazz Orchestra gave one of the year’s best concerts last Friday, and it was Mayfield’s playing, conducting, and stage presence that pulled everything together.
The band started out with “Hold That Water,” a broad exercise in the post-bop idiom with plenty of New Orleans touches and some spectacular playing. Next came Ellington and Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” which gets my vote whenever the question arises of whether there is such a thing as a perfect song. From there, the band explored a less well-known Ellington composition from his New Orleans Suite, “Thanks for the Beautiful Land, Delta,” that included an extraordinary tenor sax solo by Ed Petersen.
Mayfield then explained that New Orleans does not think of itself as a part of America, but rather as a Caribbean city that just happens to be on the Mississippi Delta. This was by way of introducing a Cuban-flavored number many in the audience proclaimed was their favorite of the night. The song included a great feature for baritone sax player Dan Oestriecher.
Part of what made this night so special, and what makes this band so great, is that they draw on the entire range of New Orleans styles and instrumentation. Evan Christopher took a solo turn on the clarinet that had the entire crowd swooning, and it reminded this listener of the early jazz legacy of that instrument and of the enormous positive influence of educator and clarinetist Alvin Batiste on contemporary New Orleans jazz.
In a final gesture of great magnanimity, Mayfield brought six members of the UCSB Jazz Ensemble onstage and kept them playing straight through the end of the set. They made his open-armed approach to jazz look and sound like a good one.