Evening Standard: Congo Square: Wynton Marsalis & the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Barbican Hall

Congo Square is a quiet spot in north-central New Orleans, near Louis Armstrong Park. Tourists take pictures of Louis’s statue there before lunching in the French Quarter. Little over a century earlier, however, it had a very different function.

Slaves flocked there from miles around on a Sunday to speak the languages, play the drums and dance the dances of their West African homeland. Nobody is more aware of this spot’s deep historical, musical and sociological significance than Wynton Marsalis, the proud son of New Orleans who leads New York’s finest jazz repertory orchestra. Last night the trumpet virtuoso opened a fortnight’s residency at the Barbican with his latest work, Congo Square, a fantastic orchestral suite that filled the platform with musicians.

On stage left, in colourful tribal robes, were the nine African singers and hand-drummers of Ghanaian master-drummer Yacub Addy, the suite’s co-composer. At stage right, in snappy business suits, the 16-piece city slickers of the LCJO. The result was an orgy of cross-cultural rhythms as America’s present met its African past. Five stars? Yes, because a musical marriage as meaningful as this has never been realised before. Outstanding solos came from tenorist Walter Blanding, flautist Ted Nash, pianist Dan Nimmer, and trumpeters Marcus Printup, Kenny Rampton (ex-Count Basie) and London-based Jay Phelps, guesting nervelessly.

On the African side the drum interplay had magical control and their diva Imani Gonzales’s one vocal was charming. Wynton spent the evening conducting. His first solo was not until after the interval and was masterly, but the arrangements were the real meat of an exhilarating evening. Time and again those expert teams tossed the ball to and fro without dropping a beat.

This month’s residency includes workshops, masterclasses and more Marsalis concerts, featuring the world premiere of his Abyssinian Mass, with 60-voice choir; A Midsummer Night’s Swing Dance; and an evolutional Swing Symphony in which the LCJO meets the LSO conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. But last night’s triumph won’t be easy to match.

Source: Evening Standard

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