Paul Simon may be 70 years old, but as a songwriter, singer, guitarist, musical adventurer, and philanthropist, he's still marvelous after all these years. One of America's greatest troubadours once again displayed his timeless artistry at last week's (April 18-20) three-concert benefit run at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Hall (including an opening night gala fundraiser that reportedly raised more than $3.5 million), which featured the great Wynton Marsalis and his 14-piece JLC Orchestra joining Simon's eight-piece band for a jazzy and sometimes swinging interpretation of 14 songs from the massive Paul Simon songbook.
The second act of Simon's almost 55-year-career (his first record with Art Garfunkel was released in 1957 when they were known as "Tom and Jerry") has been marked by his experimentation with and incorporation of other musical styles, such as a reggae, gospel, Afrobeat, and Brazilian. Joining forces with the 12 horns in Marsalis' group providEd Simon a chance to infuse some of his biggest hits with jazzy colors. Thirteen of the songs were arranged by JLC musicians (including two from Marsalis) and to their credit the arrangements enhanced these classics instead of overpowering them, which was pretty amazing considering that, according to Marsalis, the entire combined orchestra had only three days to rehearse.
Entering the stage in front of a fabulous Asian-influenced, multi-layered backdrop that looked like a mahjong set and that kept changing colors, Simon sparkled right from the opening number, "Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes" (from the Graceland album), featuring a cool Marsalis trumpet solo on a great arrangement from bass player Carlos Henriquez (who also provided terrific arrangements on "Late in the Evening" and "You Can Call Me Al"). On "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" (from Still Crazy After All These Years), the horn section provided fun staccato riffs during all the familiar "Slip out the back, Jack" chorus lines. And thanks to a smooth Marsalis arrangement of "Slip Slidin' Away," the song never sounded better, as Simon crooned like a balladeer out of the old west to some rhythmic horse clomps from the percussion section.
After a kick-ass horn arrangement by saxophonist Ted Nash on "Crazy Love" (including some rhythmic hand-clapping from the horn section), special guest singer Aaron Neville-considered by many the "voice" of New Orleans soul-provided falsetto support vocals on the Dixieland jazz infused "Take Me to the Mardi Gras." Later, Simon let Neville go solo on "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and the singer's quavering, reverb-like tenor was a bit too much of an affectation for those-like me-who will always have Art Garfunkel's ethereal sound embedded in their brains. The Zydeco-laced "That Was Your Mother" included an accordion and washboard from Simon's band in what became an almost dueling banjoes-like back and forth with the horns of the Marsalis group.
The set's most stirring moment may have been when Marsalis left his perch in the back row of the horn section to join Simon downstage for their duet on "The Sound of Silence." As Simon softly strummed the opening chords, Marsalis trumpet wailed the haunting melody. When Simon would sing one of the famous lyrical lines ("Hello darkness, my old friend . . . etc."), Marsalis would answer as if the two masters were having a musical conversation, with Simon as the wise teacher of life lessons and Marsalis' soft trumpet tones conveying a student understanding that sometimes silence can make the loudest noise of all.
The rest of the show offered one knockout number after another. The 1973 megahit "Kodachrome" (from There Goes Rhymin' Simon), which doesn't hold up that well against Simon's later more sophisticated songs, was given new life with some funky instrumental riffs. "Gone At Last" had a gospel/rock feel and the horns provided a torrid ending, while "Late in the Evening" featured a sensual salsa beat. It was fascinating to hear "The Boxer" with a horn arrangement, but it was supportive, non-intrusive, and exceeding sweet on the bridge. Then once the orchestra began pounding out the unmistakable opening notes of "You Can Call Me All," the entire Rose Hall audience, most of them children of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, was on its feet providing raucous, hand-clapping percussion. After all these years, it's obvious we're all still crazy for Paul Simon.