Musicians wake up in a sweat, feeling the grip of Armstrong and Parker on their clavicles and wondering how to keep peace with the ghosts. It’s a dread responsibility, and few pull it off with as much triumphant joy as Cal State L.A.’s Luckman Jazz Orchestra under James Newton.
Many have fumbled the heritage torch. A traditionalist jazzman such as Roy Hargrove tries to hip & hop (’03’s RH Factor) and sounds like he just came back from the mall in stiff new ghetto sneakers. A brilliant avanteer-theorist such as Steve Coleman has some ’90s flings with da bling and fathers thalidomide dolphins. The only achievement of the recent remix album Impulsive!: Revolutionary Jazz Reworked is to boggle your ears at how much more energy and integrity the ’60s originals exude when they run unmodernized. Updaters can find their good intentions devoured by sterility, cuteness, awkwardness, liberal niceness. Damn.
Since old music comes from cultures that are gone, cultures that you can’t understand ’cause you weren’t there, huge knowledge is required to translate the complex art so it lives now. Classical conductors train like marathoners for this. In jazz, it takes a genius like pianist Marcus Roberts. Or a James Newton.
Newton, first known as a ’70s woodwind outman, for some years now has been uncorking concerts at Cal State L.A. that have included in-house originals and an Eric Dolphy tribute, all intriguing and knockdown ambitious. This week’s “Old Wine, New Bottles” big-band program is the riskiest yet, not just because Newton strays from the original charts to impart “a sense of newness” (Newtonness?), but because some of the material dates back to long before the 52-year-old conductor was born. He’s drawing your special gaze to a work by Willie “The Lion” Smith, an early stride pianist who inspired Duke Ellington (arranged here by orchestra keysman Lanny Hartley). Past experience tells us it will not be a fragile period piece: In this orchestra, hair-raising sax fissions can adroitly wrestle Rick James in the Cotton Club.
Fittingly, the Duke himself dominates the bill, and the selections stir questions: How’s Newton going to avoid making “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” sound quaint? (Steely Dan couldn’t.) What the hell can you do with “Take the ‘A’ Train” at this point? And aren’t “Sophisticated Lady” and “Mood Indigo” the ultimate examples of music that stands outside of time? How can you mess with them without messing them up? Other choices make you curious in different ways: take-offs on Fletcher Henderson, Jelly Roll Morton, Mary Lou Williams, and the great take-offer himself, Sun Ra.
If you’re doubtful, right now I’m listening to a 5-year-old recording of James Newton essaying electronic beat music. And it ain’t half bad.
P.S.: Check out the World Stage’s Friday benefit for vet LJO trombonist Phil Ranelin, who’s recovering from a nasty car crash.
The 17-piece Luckman Jazz Orchestra, featuring Charles Owens, Bennie Maupin, Jack Nimitz and William Roper, plays Cal State L.A.’s Luckman Fine Arts Complex, 5151 State University Dr., E.L.A.; Sat., Jan. 28, 8 p.m.; $30-$40. (323) 343-6600 or www.luckmanarts.org.