Hoopla

Jazz legend Wynton Marsalis and band to perform at sold out Hancher performance Saturday

Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis enjoys finding playful sleighful of tunes to take on his #x201c;Big Band Holidays#x201d;
Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis enjoys finding playful sleighful of tunes to take on his “Big Band Holidays” tour, coming to Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City for a sold-out performance Saturday night (12/14). (Frank Stewart photo)
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Wynton Marsalis has a reputation as a serious dude and a stern taskmaster. The cerebral trumpet virtuoso is arguably the most significant jazz musician since the late Miles Davis, so it’s not surprising that Marsalis’ reputation is all-business.

“I’m all about making the best music possible,” Marsalis said by phone from a Dec. 6 tour stop in Lincoln, Neb.

“That’s always been the goal since I started out,” he said. “I’m still about pushing the envelope. But the reality is that when I’m not making music, I’m actually constantly clowning. I like to have fun. You can ask the guys I play with about how I am. I’m more lighthearted than you think.”

Part of Marsalis’ playful side is his penchant for delivering holiday material. His latest Christmas album, “Big Band Holidays 2,” features a number of familiar tracks. The same can be said for the preceding album, “Big Band Holidays.”

Expect such familiar tunes as “Jingle Bells” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” when Marsalis and The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra perform a sold-out concert Saturday night (12/14) at Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City.

“I love Christmas songs,” Marsalis said. “Just like most people, I grew up with Christmas music in our house. It’s always a style of music that I’ve enjoyed.”

Marsalis, 58, will be flanked by the The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and he’ll be joined by acclaimed vocalists baritone Denzal Sinclaire and emerging teenager phenom Alexis Morrast, winner of the nationally broadcast “Showtime at the Apollo.”

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“You should come out just to hear Alexis Morrast, who is such a special young lady,” Marsalis gushed. “She really is amazing. Alexis has an uncommon voice.”

Marsalis, who comes from an exceptionally talented musical family, is an uncommon talent, as well. Unlike many of his peers, he eschewed funk and R&B in favor of jazz at the dawn of the ’80s. Marsalis was weaned on seminal jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard.

“There was no one like him,” Marsalis said. “He was an inspiration.”

But so was his father Ellis Marsalis Jr., who still performs at age 85. “My father had a huge impact on my siblings and I,” Marsalis said. “My father set the tone.”

Marsalis’ brothers, saxophonist Branford, trombonist Delfeayo and drummer Jason, are professional musicians, as well.

It was evident as a youngster that he was blessed with a mind-blowing gift. “Early on I knew I could do something of note musically,” Marsalis. “I put my all into it and just saw what could happen.”

The artistic director of jazz at Lincoln Center has enjoyed incomparable success, winning nine Grammy Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

“It’s been extraordinary,” Marsalis said. “I’ve been very fortunate with my musical career, but I’ve worked very hard for it and I don’t take anything for granted. You never know what tomorrow will bring. I’m proud of the past and I’m doing all that I can for a productive future.”

Speaking of the future, expect Marsalis to continue to perform and record with prominent recording artists like he’s done in the past. “United We Swing: Best of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Galas,” released in 2018, features Marsalis and his Big Band playing with such icons as Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, James Taylor and Eric Clapton. Each of the guests has his own distinctive style but somehow meshes with Marsalis’ band’s jazzy New Orleans aesthetic.

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“We make everything work,” he said. “We find common musical ground. We hope to work with more talented and interesting musicians. We’ve worked with some amazing singer/songwriters.”

When Marsalis and his ensemble perform with legendary figures, there typically isn’t much history connecting them.

“We usually don’t know the (prominent) musicians who play with us,” Marsalis said. “We often do have some connections, but that’s as far as it goes. With Ray Charles, my little brother (Branford Marsalis) played with him. Lyle Lovett’s bus driver was friends with our bus driver. Jimmy Buffett is connected with the Gulf Region and so are we. We might have a common denominator, and if we do, we build on that. If not, we find that connection.”

It’s no coincidence that Marsalis named the album “United We Swing” in an era when the country appears to be truly divided.

“There is that connection,” Marsalis said. “We’re living in a time in which the haves are more separated than ever from the have-nots. Something has to change. In music, we can come from different styles and genres and play together. Why can’t people in everyday life, who are so different, come together? I’m hoping that there can be some change soon.”

One element that hasn’t changed with Marsalis is that he will never jump on trends or care what anyone thinks.

“I’ve always been my own person, for better or worse,” he said. “When I was starting out back in the ’80s, the last thing I wanted to do was to be part of the gangsta mentality. Some people had issues with that. I didn’t want to be part of something that had nothing to do with me, even if it was popular. A lot of those people that were part of that mentality are no longer in the business.

“I had to do things my own way and fortunately I’m still doing what I love.”

If you go

• What: The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis: “Big Band Holidays,” featuring vocalists Denzal Sinclaire and Alexis Morrast

• Where: Hancher Auditorium, 141 East Park Rd., Iowa City

• When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday (12/14)

• Tickets: SOLD OUT

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• Information: Hancher Ticket Office, (319) 335-1160, 1- (800) HANCHER or hancher.uiowa.edu/2019-20/JazzatLC

• Artist’s website: wyntonmarsalis.org

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