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There are two ways to look at trombonist Christopher Crenshaw’s six-part The Fifties — A Prism. The live recording from February 2017, only available digitally, features Crenshaw’s tribute to some of the more modern jazz styles of the 1950s as played by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. On the negative side, little of the writing and few of the solos sound like they are from the 1950s, all being much more modern. On the positive side, the music almost always holds one’s interest.
The suite begins with “Flipped His Lid,” a complex blues reminiscent of Lennie Tristano. Yet, one cannot imagine the writing, or Sherman Irby’s alto-sax solo, taking place more than 60 years ago. “Just A-Slidin’,” which has prominent roles for trombonists Vincent Gardner and Elliot Mason, hints a bit at the team of J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding. “Conglomerate” tries to sound like West Coast jazz but comes closer to that of Duke Ellington. And the interplay between baritonist Paul Nedzela and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis — emulating Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker — is fairly tame.
“Cha-Cha Toda la Noche” starts off in a Tito Puente/Machito Afro-Cuban jazz vein. But why does this piece feature Victor Goines on clarinet, an instrument rarely used by the Latin big bands of the time? The orchestra again sounds like Ellington’s, although with a Latin rhythm section. “Unorthodox Sketches” is a so-so tribute to Third Stream jazz, even if Ted Nash’s free playing on piccolo is creative. The strongest part of the suite, “Pursuit of the New Thing,” closes out the program. Nash, on alto sax, and Marsalis pay tribute to Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, and the piece sounds like it could have come from Coleman in 1959.
Very much of a mixed bag, The Fifties – A Prism is best enjoyed by forgetting its title and just savoring the music. — Scott Yanow