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Wynton Marsalis: A rhapsody of respect for greats of classical jazz

It has been about 30 years since precocious American trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, having won Grammys in jazz and classical music, divided the jazz world with his controversial opinions.

He dismissed many of the innovative or experimental styles that had come into jazz in the 1970s and 80s, and emphasised what he saw as its essential elements: coherent improvisation, swing feel and the blues.

Many saw him as a conservative, little concerned with jazz as a living, evolving art, more concerned with re-creating historical styles that had underpinned it for most of its history.

The opening Sydney concert of the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra underlined the latter view. The flavour of the evening’s program was undeniably retro: the first half primarily a brilliant rendering of classic Duke Ellington pieces; and the second, inspired arrangements of some George Gershwin compositions.

Ellington’s saxophone writing is one of the richest sounds in the jazz canon, and the JLCO recaptured it gloriously throughout the first half, and also in Billy Strayhorn’s unusual 1963 arrangement of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

For a musician of Marsalis’s eminence and influence the concert was by no means built around his considerable virtuosity.

He sits humbly at the back of the orchestra, at one end of the trumpet section, where he introduces the soloists and announces the program with infectious humour. Marsalis takes no more solos than other members of the JLCO, which is full of splendid improvisers but, whenever he plays, one is reminded of a thought that is easy to forget: this man really can play the trumpet!

Highlights for me were contributions by saxophonist Sherman Irby, who played a soulful solo in Ellington’s Big Fat Alice’s Blues. His clever arrangement of Gershwin’s But Not For Me was memorable, too, when the band got into an effortless, swinging groove that lifted everyone’s spirits.

Erroll Garner-influenced pianist Dan Nimmer was a delight whenever he soloed, and Victor Goines got the biggest ovation of the night for his Sidney Bechet-inspired rendition of Summertime on the soprano saxophone.

The capacity audience, which skewed towards the elderly and well-heeled, delivered a standing ovation at the end. This was jazz not for buffs but for baby boomers.

Tonight and tomorrow the JLCO, with the Sydney Symphony, will perform two works by Leonard Bernstein and Marsalis’s Swing Symphony, first performed in 2010 in Europe. Marsalis has been known to revise his major works, so Sydney will be hearing the latest version.

I think it will be well received.

Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra perform in Sydney tonight and tomorrow with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, then Albany, Western Australia, February 29; Perth, with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, March 3 and 4; and Brisbane, March 6.

by Eric Myers
Source: The Australian

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