[JPL] Music Review | '"Suite for Human Nature': A Children's Lesson About Seasons and People

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Sat Dec 18 15:37:00 EST 2004

Music Review | '"Suite for Human Nature': A Children's Lesson About Seasons and People

December 18, 2004

"Suite for Human Nature," which opened at Jazz at Lincoln
Center's Rose Theater on Thursday night, is a gently
jazz-educational cross between the trenchant lessons of
ancient myth and the gentler storytelling of children's
suites like "Peter and the Wolf." 

Its score, composed by Wynton Marsalis, slips through New
Orleans jazz and ragtime, Miles Davis's cool period, the
big-band Count Basie of the 1950's and the later Duke
Ellington-Billy Strayhorn collaborations, as well as
ballads, marches and scatting. Diane Charlotte Lampert, a
playwright and songwriter, wrote the libretto and lyrics. 

At this point, with the dew still thick on the sheet music,
it is a cute, slight piece of work, with an abundance of
jazz styles played well, but little narrative pull or
melodic strength. But it has lots of room for evolution - a
good thing, since a brand new, year-round arts presenter of
Jazz at Lincoln Center's stature needs a durable holiday
show. I hesitate to say whether "Suite for Human Nature" is
the one to stick with because its true test audience was
staying home on a school night. I didn't see anyone in the
hall under 35. 

Thursday's performance was its fourth; the Lincoln Theater
in Washington had the first three. (The piece was
commissioned by the Washington Performing Arts Society.)
There are no dancers or stage sets in this show; three
singers (Milt Grayson, Jennifer Sanon and Allan Harris)
emerged for one number each. The rest was carried by the
Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (conducted on Thursday by
Robert Sadin); brief bursts of song from the Boys Choir of
Harlem, which stayed at the back of the stage through the
90-minute work; and the evening's narrator, the actress and
writer Nancy Giles. 

Because this is jazz, there were frequent spaces for
improvisation in the music - opportunities for musical
acting that could significantly alter the impact of each
performance. Various solos by Mr. Marsalis and Marcus
Printup on trumpet, Victor Goines on clarinet, Walter
Blanding Jr. on tenor saxophone and Joe Temperley on
baritone saxophone were graceful and evocative in signaling
wistfulness, panic, celebration and so on. But they can go
further: without visuals, a child needs a little more
musical exaggeration. 

The story tells of Mother Nature and Father Time; the
creation of their imperfect human children (named Fear,
Envy, Hate, Greed and Fickle) out of sticks and stones and
pumpkin seeds; and the judgmental Four Winds, who blow
their opinions around. The family cools down with one last
childbirth, when Mother Nature gives birth to twins named
Love. Hate is the last to adjust; he has never learned to
look at anything twice. 

Ms. Lampert's libretto steers clear of Christmas or any
specific holiday per se, though the story passes through
the four seasons; its overriding theme, however, is the
virtue of accepting others' shortcomings, a perfect message
for late December. It makes frequent stops for homilies and
lukewarm wordplay: at the end, while the orchestra plays
"The March of the Brats," the libretto describes "each
marching off to the beat of his own drummer, and when one
of them got out of line, Love kept them together." (There's
a song, too, sung by Mr. Harris, about the winds blowing
off the "e" in hate and turning it into a hat.) 

As in past works including "Blood on the Fields" and "All
Rise," Mr. Marsalis gets into the challenge of musical
description, whether he is intimating stress or conflict
(wayward, dissonant Dixieland), peaceful cooperation (a
restful quartet passage borrowing elements of Davis's "Kind
of Blue" album), or a fight (a fast, swinging big-band

More and more, he has created a sort of jazz that
represents generalizations of human temperament and isn't
merely art about art. But though this score holds your
attention with plenty of stimulating arrangement devices
and piquant moods, the show still needs the kind of songs
that will make you want to take your children next year. 

"Suite for Human Nature" repeats at 8 tonight and 3 p.m.
tomorrow at Rose Theater, Broadway at 60th Street. 



Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
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