The Queen of Soul made a surprise appearance at the House of Swing, helping the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra usher in the holiday season at their first concert in their newly refurbished home.
Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis had a special gift for the audience when he introduced Aretha Franklin in the middle of Thursday night's annual "Big Band Holidays" concert at the Rose Theater. The concert followed a ribbon-cutting ceremony hosted by Bette Midler to open the new Mica and Ahmet Ertegun Atrium at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Franklin, walking onstage to a standing ovation, said, "Wynton, I think maybe I'll change the program just a little bit."
Accompanying herself on piano, she then sang the Christmas carol "O Tannenbaum" in English and German. She followed with a soulful, gospel-infused version of the Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt tune "My Cup Runneth Over," an outtake from her 1972 album "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," which she recently added to her concert repertoire.
The 73-year-old diva, joking that "this happens to be my 50th year in the business and I'm feeling it," dedicated her performance to Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, who died in 2006. Ertegun became Franklin's friend and mentor after his partner, producer Jerry Wexler, signed her to the label in 1966, where she soon established herself as the Queen of Soul with such hits as "Respect."
Mica Ertegun, a prominent interior designer, chose to honor her late husband's legacy by providing the lead gift and taking an active role in the multimillion-dollar makeover of the public spaces connecting Jazz at Lincoln Center's three performance venues.
Marsalis, in a backstage interview, noted that when Jazz at Lincoln Center moved into its new home, dubbed the House of Swing, on two floors of the Time Warner Center in 2004, the organization poured its resources into the performance venues, leaving little left over for the atrium, which was treated as an afterthought.
Now, he says, the public space has "a warmth and feeling" that was lacking before. The redesign, with its curving walls of red oak, opens up the public space to the two-story glass windows offering sweeping views of Central Park and the Manhattan skyline, adds a raised stage by the windows for performances by jazz ensembles, connects the floors with a glass staircase, and incorporates state-of-the-art technology, including a 26-foot video wall.
"It's elegant, it's grand and it has a type of relaxed formality," said Marsalis, JALC's managing and artistic director. "It's a more welcoming atmosphere for the House of Swing."
The concert was a welcome homecoming for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, which used other New York venues and toured the U.S. after the renovations, began in July.
During the two-hour concert, the JLCO, with guest vocalists Audrey Shakir and Denzal Sinclaire, continued its holiday tradition of performing fresh new arrangements by its members of Yuletide classics, closing with a briskly swinging version of "Silent Night" featuring both singers that was anything but calm.