Homage to the Duke

Wynton Marsalis, they say, is somewhat exasperated by his reputation for proselytising seriousness and would like the world to know him more as a man with a mission who nevertheless knows how to have a good time.

The trouble is that the insistence of Marsalis’s burningly genuine desire to let the world in on the secrets of jazz, and now the trundling inexorability of its connection with the Lincoln Center’s works (which effectively makes this the corporate-funded equivalent of a state jazz orchestra) gives you the sneaking suspicion that even the jokey ad libs might be written on the sheet-music.

A lot of backchat, informal tune-up jamming and private anecdote-passing goes on between the members of this band on the London leg of its worldwide Ellington Centennial tour, as if the Barbican really were the Savoy Ballroom in the 1930s – but it isn’t.

The true relaxation and exhilaration of the real Ellington band (bordering on the anarchic occasionally) came from the confidence of the leader and the players in their individuality and the still-evolving freshness of their music, whereas the cultural place of this is irredeemably different.

Marsalis, who is on a roll this year with a jaw-dropping record-release schedule as well as the Ellington tour, has certainly proved with much the same band and in the same venue (two years ago) that he’s capable of touching your heart as well as your sense of wonder at his technical and productive power.

The Lincoln Center’s Blood on the Fields show, written by Marsalis, was less sophisticated but more affecting, and more genuinely personal and relaxed as well.

Tuesday’s Ellington gig, consummately played, and featuring several astonishing improvised solos (notably from barn-door trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and from Marsalis himself) had a shade more carefully-burnished gloss than warmth – but it was, of course, rapturously received, which indicates that part of the leader’s mission, to remind music-lovers everywhere of the scope of Duke Ellington’s achievement and celebrate the unique language of jazz, is as successfully accomplished as ever.

The band rocketed through a swathe of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn music, and played most of the earlier manifestations of it with the succinctness and short solos that characterised the pre-LP recording.

The extended music was taken from Ellington’s postwar suites, and some of the lesser-known examples were dazzling in their ensemble virtuosity, sumptuous textures and many-layered intricacies.

The brass players used talking-mute effects to the borderline of overkill, but young trombone master Wycliffe Gordon’s mix of jabbering garrulity, silky long notes and cajoling sounds was irresistible from his first solo on a louche Black and Tan Fantasy to his heated exchanges with his partners on the second half’s Mood Indigo.

The snorting trombones and train-hooting trumpets of Track 360 were delicious, baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley was exquisitely delicate being Harry Carney on Sophisticated Lady, the audience spontaneously applauded the skidding ensemble’s agility on Take the A Train in midstream, and the audacity of line on Marsalis’s wah-wah solo in Tattooed Bride reminded even his critics of what an astonishing trumpeter he remains.

It was only Ted Nash’s wild and almost abstract Eric Dolphy-like alto solo on Such Sweet Thunder that pointed up how much one longs for remakes as well as tributes in this band, or how fascinating George Russell might be directing the same project. But as a curator of a tradition that certainly needs nurture, Wynton Marsalis undeniably does an invaluable job.

by John Fordham
Source: The Guardian

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