For a performer often branded a "musical conservative," Wynton Marsalis is rarely predictable. When it was announced that his concert on Tuesday would feature the same edition of the Marsalis Sextet that's on his new album, "From the Plantation to the Penitentiary," as well as the singer Jennifer Sanon, who is extensively featured on the album, it was a logical conclusion that Mr. Marsalis would be performing music from the new release.
Surprise! I was somewhat happy to learn that he had something completely different in store for us. This was "Music, Deep Rivers in My Soul," an hour-long suite for quintet and special guests based on a poem by Maya Angelou. The work was apparently written and recorded in 2003, but only included in a limited edition printing of the poem (and thus not widely available), and it received its premiere performance on Tuesday.
The concert opened with a set by Dr. John (aka Mac Rebennack), the New Orleans-centric soul singer and pianist. Dr. John's music has always been somewhat problematic for jazz fans, ever since he was a young Crescent City musician who built a considerable pop career on doing what was perceived as an outrageous caricature of such old-time New Orleans R&B stars as Professor Longhair and Smiley Lewis.
Yet during the last 40 years, Dr. John has grown into the role, and, having never heard a whole show by him in person, I have to admit I liked him a lot better than I thought I would. The R&B tradition, from the aforementioned New Orleans stars to more Northern performers like Screaming Jay Hawkins and Miss Cornshucks, is one of flamboyant entertainers with colorful names and costumes, and Dr. John makes like a voodoo priest with a skull on his piano and alligator shoes that look like the gator is still in them.
Dr. John plays a blend of swamp rock and New Orleans street-parade funk ó the kind of late-night, outdoor music that doesn't work as well when you put a roof over it or when most of the audience is sober, but is highly entertaining just the same. In addition to his 1973 chart hit, "Right Place, Wrong Time," he played "Love for Sale" as if it had been written by Elton John, and a boogie-woogie treatment of "Blues in the Night." After Cole Porter and Harold Arlen, I found myself wondering, "What's next, Sir Noel Coward?" But instead of a funk treatment of "If Love Were All," the good Doctor essayed a vamping, chanting rendition of fellow Louisianan Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene."
The star of the evening, Mr. Marsalis, joined him in a medley of parade tunes that wound up with "Down by the Riverside," and the M.D. ended, reverently, with an homage to the Crescent City in its hour of need: "Sweet Home, New Orleans," from his current album, "Sippiana Hurricane."
Although Mr. Marsalis does a fine job as artistic director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and as the host of most of its concerts, it was plain from the start of the second half of Tuesday's concert that he is considerably more jazzed about playing his own music with his own group. He fired up his quintet ó saxophonist Walter Blandings, pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Carlos Henriquez, and drummer Ali Jackson ó with the same energy, and throughout the show they played with the same level of takeno-prisoners/we-came-to-play attitude. To make the set yet more exciting, the music was further enlivened by two not-strictly-musical guests: the poet Elizabeth Fox, who recited excerpts from Ms. Angelou's text, and the tap dancer Jared Grimes.
"Music, Deep Rivers in My Soul" is Ms. Angelou's poetic portrait of black music and what it means to the people who created it and listen to it. Ms. Fox read the narration with a strong, declamatory voice (something that Ms. Sanon, who is a singer, not an actress, probably couldn't have done) as the five musicians and one dancer traversed the streams of American music, from the blues to Gospel, funeral dirges, spirituals, marches, swing, and bebop.
Mr. Marsalis's melodies are ace, and he laid out the suite carefully so that the solos, themes, and variations were never redundant. The work was mostly original, though it did include variations on Billy Strayhorn's "Take the A Train" and the spiritual "A Closer Walk With Thee," as well as a straight-up rendition of Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia."
Apart from Mr. Marsalis's commanding presence, the music was driven by the interaction with the dancer: On a blues depicting slavery and persecution (a prevalent theme on his new album), Mr. Marsalis growled and shrieked through his muted trumpet like he wanted to wake the dead, while Mr. Grimes moved like Eliza on the ice flows, fleeing from the slave-catchers. As Mr. Jackson played tambourine to give the music that down-home feeling, Mr. Grimes undulated like David dancing before the Lord. The piece ended quietly, with Mr. Marsalis whistling while Mr. Grimes slowly came to rest.
The unstated message from both Dr. John and Mr. Marsalis was a hymn of hope for their native city, which, to reference Ms. Angelou and her own inspiration, Paul Laurence Dunbar, was "not a carol of joy or glee, but a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core."