United We Swing
Spaces by Wynton Marsalis
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis
featuring dancers Lil Buck, Jared Grimes & Ron Myles
If there is one thing these vanguards—Wynton Marsalis (musician), Charles “Lil Buck” Riley (jookin), and Jared Grimes (tap and hip-hop/street dance)—have in common, it is improvisation; their instinctual understanding is proof. Jookin originated on the streets of Memphis; tap hails from a blend of African rhythms and Irish clog dance in lower Manhattan; hip-hop grew from the complex blend of MCing, DJing, graffiti, and breakdancing in the Bronx; and jazz was born deep in New Orleans. Jazz, tap, and the many shades of street dance are American- born art forms, central to the theme for this season at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Because the deep-seated history of improvisation grounds all three, there is no doubt that it will have a place in Marsalis’ new work, Spaces. Marsalis began work on Spaces before pulling Riley and Grimes into the mix, knowing that they would help to “…convey how essential movement is to jazz, and how it reflects a natural expression of life itself.” Riley and Grimes joined without hesitation. Marsalis’ self-described “animal ballet” promises to capture “…the natural fascination we have with the sounds and movements of animals” vis-à-vis their brand of music and movement-inventiveness inspired by the way animals move.
When either Riley or Grimes is paired with Marsalis, the organic way they respond to each other is electric. To start, an intense dance of the eyes happens before anyone moves. Then, a signal from one or the other begins a back-and-forth exchange of rhythms. In between their riffing, there’s hand clapping, scatting, and oftentimes a supportive call— “You got it!” Finally, when any session is over, they share an infectious smile.
For Spaces, a decidedly American-born mix, all three will meld phrasing, syncopation, the human metronome, and myriad other ingredients peppered by improvisation because it just makes sense. In a 1998 article for the New York Times, Marsalis affirms “…when improvisation works so well that it can stand on its own as composition…This is what jazz musicians raised to an art.” Riley insists that improvisation plays a huge role in Memphis jookin, but “…the process of learning the fundamentals of the style is very detailed and approximate.” Audiences still get a rise, upwards of six years since the viral takeover of Riley’s duet with cellist Yo-Yo Ma to Camille Saint-Saëns’ “The Swan,” which began as a high school improvisation. Grimes is also lauded for his ease with improvisation; writer Cynthia Bond Perry noted, “It’s hard to describe how…he is so spontaneous night after night.” To that he says, “…you see an artist’s true colors through improvisation…it captures the moment.”
On- and off-stage, Marsalis and others acknowledge the individual genius of Riley and Grimes. In turn, they recognize Marsalis’ mark in the world of jazz: listening to his teachings and following his lead. Grimes says Marsalis was the first person whose comments about his work he respected: “…he is my school; my degree.” Grimes calls Marsalis “professor.” “[Marsalis’]…knowledge of music and the arts is inspiring, especially for young people like myself,” adds Riley. “He’s one of the best role models, and on top of that, he’s downright fun!” “OG” [Original Gangsta] is Riley’s name for Marsalis. Their rich and complementary history is what shapes their process. Regarding process, and the genius behind process, Marsalis notes, “Genius always manifests itself through attention to fine detail. Works of great genius sound so natural they appear simple, but this is the simplicity of elimination, not the simplicity of ignorance.” For Spaces, expect detail from three geniuses at work, but also expect good fun drawn from ease, expertise, and, of course, improvisation.