Paul Simon and Wynton Marsalis do one better than the typical Lincoln Center fund-raising pop-jazz mind-meld

Paul Simon at Jazz at Lincoln Center. ()
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Every year at fund-raising time the honchos at Jazz at Lincoln Center (J@LC) stage a show that teams trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with a star guaranteed to make a big splash with its boomer demographic.

One of the draws is that the star is from outside the jazz world, which gives everyone involved a chance to stretch their musical muscles and find common ground. No one loses in the deal: J@LC's bottom line gets a bump, Marsalis looks a tad more ecumenical, the pop-star philanthropists indulge themselves with elegant tailoring, and audiences get treated to once-in-a-lifetime perfomances. To date, their ranks have included Willie Nelson, Stevie Wonder and last year's guest, Eric Clapton.

This weekend songwriting eminence Paul Simon joined this elite troop of benefactors, allowing his longtime touring band to be augmented by Marsalis' 15-piece orchestra for three evenings at the J@LC headquarters in Columbus Circle. Against the backdrop of upheaval at the non-profit (a new executive director and a new board chair will take over in the summer), “The Paul Simon Songbook” functioned as a heady greatest-hits retrospective. Several members of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra outfitted classics from his now 50-plus year career with new arrangements, tweaking folkish tunes whose literary meticulousness has always made room for malleability, much of it via an assortment of rootsy and/or globalist rhythms.

Simon's band covers so many bases so well (every member, from ponytailed musical director Mark Stewart on down, is fluent on several instruments) that even though writing for such an accomplished group of players is a composer's dream, adding imaginative textures to what they do as an ensemble presents a challenge.

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This was palpable at the beginning of the evening. Simon kicked off the opener, the South African-flavored song “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes,” a cappella, and as his group's splendid guitarists and percussionists settled into the lilt that's now second-nature to them, Marsalis' orchestra—its 12-piece horn section covering the right half of the stage—seemed relegated to muted tone colors until a swing break was inserted. Marsalis soloed, then out.

“50 Ways To Leave Your Lover,” the next tune, was rendered in inverse fashion; the firebrand trumpet solo was up front as the intro, served by arranger Marcus Printup. Simon sang beautifully and the crowd was clearly basking in the glow of his effortlessness, but in the early going the orchestra's presence almost personified the elusive lyrics of the third selection, “Slip Slidin' Away,” taken here at a loping midtempo chug: “You know the nearer the destination…the more you're slip slidin' away”…

But then the brilliance inherent in the collaboration began peeking through. It's probably fitting that orchestra drummer Ali Jackson drew the lot for the arrangement of “Further To Fly,” a tune from Simon's hugely successful album Rhythm of the Saints that features crosshatched pulses from Cameroon and Brazil. Jackson's role as a player was diminished considerably when surrounded by Simon's drummer (Jim Oblon) and percussion team (Jamey Haddad, Pedrito Martinez), but his arrangement did more than just spotlight the rhythms. The piece turned out to be the evening's jaunt down the Amazon, with Simon's lyrics of ambivalence-tinged perseverance swimming with the grooves while flutes colored much of the way. Suddenly all 20-plus instruments onstage gelled into an epic vision that neither group could've pulled off alone.

Cohesion and surprises were legion from that moment on. At varying intervals in his career Simon has written songs that cast Marsalis' home city of New Orleans as a site of rejuvenative pleasure, so the crowd went nuts when Crescent City icon Aaron Neville danced from the wings to sing 1973's “Take Me To The Mardi Gras.” Neville's crisp Sunday-go-to-meeting suit and panama hat didn't stop him from getting all the way down to the accompanying second-line rhythm, and to bring the point home he launched the band into the only song of the evening not penned by Simon, Huey “Piano” Smith's “Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu.” Then, with Simon taking a breather, Neville sunk his signature falsetto into trombonist Vincent Gardner's sumptuous arrangement for “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” As the enduring Simon & Garfunkel hit was traversed by the singer's melismatic syllables, Mark Stewart, balanced against the full orchestra, traded his guitar for a cello.

The smooth sailing was written in even more change-ups once Simon reappeared. There was the sanctified gospel that wedded saxist Sherman Irby's soulful work on “Kodachrome” to the soul-clap happy pep of “Gone At Last” by Waltrer Blanding. Bassist Carlos Henriquez forged a muscular crowd-pleaser on “Late In The Evening,” beefing the original's salsa percussion backing into big-band rumba reminiscent of twin Titos Puente or Rodriguez (take your pick). It's been years since Simon was the tentative singer who let rhythms pick up the slack for his unassuming vocals, but hearing him pitched like a Latin sonero with the band's weighty gusts at his back was still astonishing.

His vocal command also explained why, unlike in previous fund-raiser star turns, Marsalis kept his seat in the orchestra for most of the show. He only ventured down front for his own chamber-style reworking of “The Sound Of Silence” (acoustic-guitar, voice, trumpet and Stewart again on cello helping with vocal harmonies).

As someone whose respect for musicianship is boundless, Marsalis' admiration for the collaboration was unabashed when he made the band introductions. He even compared talking about music with Simon to talking to Miles Davis.

“Some people have the overview of the history of music in America,” he told the audience. “We up here have really enjoyed everything this evening. Y'all don't be strangers.”