Dedicated to preserving America's jazz heritage, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (formerly known as the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra) is a key component of New York City's Jazz at Lincoln Center program, serving as the highly versatile house band for a wide variety of concert events. The 15-piece orchestra maintains a heavy touring schedule, devoting about six months annually to appearances around the U.S. and at prominent international venues. Additionally, the JLCO participates in many Jazz at Lincoln Center educational events (for both advanced and younger students), and records occasionally, both as their own entity and as a backing group for artistic director Wynton Marsalis.
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra was founded in 1988 and in its early years was often conducted by David Berger. Marsalis was hired as the group's artistic director in 1991, and under his influence the group's historical bent blossomed, paying particular attention to the Duke Ellington oeuvre. Indeed, their annual Ellington concerts have become cultural staples for many New Yorkers, and the group's first recording -- made under Berger's direction -- was 1992's Portraits by Ellington. Still, the JLCO doesn't treat jazz as a museum exhibit; it has commissioned a number of new, in-the-tradition works specifically for the group. Over the course of the '90s, the JLCO augmented their regular concert, touring, and educational activities with international television appearances and special collaborative performances with various symphony orchestras. In the late '90s, the group began to appear more frequently on record as Marsalis began using them for ambitiously expansive projects such as 1997's Jump Start and Jazz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Blood on the Fields, 1999's Sweet Release & Ghost Story and Big Train. Also in 1999, the JLCO celebrated Duke Ellington's centennial with the concert album, Live in Swing City: Swingin' with the Duke.
During the 2000s, Marsalis continued to work closely with the JLCO, releasing such albums as 2002's orchestral-themed All Rise, 2005's Don't Be Afraid: The Music of Charles Mingus, and 2006's collaboration with Ghanaian drum master Yacub Addy, Congo Square. In 2015, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra showcased their love of the Afro-Cuban tradition with Live in Cuba, a two-disc release featuring the ensemble's first ever performances in Cuba. Later that same year, the Orchestra released Big Band Holiday, a collection of jazz arrangements of classic songs of the Christmas season. In 2016, the JLCO brought out The Abyssinian Mass, a recording of a 2013 piece by Marsalis that explored the relationship between secular and sacred music in the African-American community. The JLCO teamed up with pianist and bandleader Jon Batiste to record 2017's The Music of John Lewis, a tribute to the work of the founder and musical director of the celebrated jazz ensemble the Modern Jazz Quartet. Also that year, they delivered the piano-centric Handful of Keys, which featured appearances by Myra Melford, Joey Alexander, Helen Sung, and others. It reached the Top Ten on Billboard's Jazz Albums chart. ~ Steve Huey