Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra/Wynton Marsalis, Barbican, London

American trumpeter Wynton Marsalis has trenchant views on what is appropriate to jazz, and what defines it. Chief among them is the notion of swing – hence “United in Swing” was the overarching title of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s Barbican residency, the first by an international associate orchestra.

The centrepiece was a four-concert celebration of orchestral jazz, including a British retrospective. The first three concerts, at the Barbican, carried narrative histories; the fourth, at the Hackney Empire, delivered more contemporary work.

Jazz is strongly rooted in dance and thrives on informality, and this was reflected in the JLCO’s visit. Prior to the Barbican dates, Stoke Newington town hall hosted a midsummer night’s dance led by British trumpeter Guy Barker. Its enjoyable mix of nostalgia-fest and retro-dance night was pepped up by larger-than-life Americans and let-off-steam soloists – Marsalis stopped by. Post-concert jam sessions at the Vortex jazz club included unforgettable moments such as trombonist Wycliffe Gordon’s pindrop-quiet muted trombone solo on “Embraceable You”. And, yes, Marsalis stopped by there too.

The meat, though, was the concert programme. The JLCO is a dazzling jazz orchestra, pitching its dynamic range to extremes without a hint of parody, swooping and slurring as one, and delivering the authentic textures of widely different jazz composers. Its interpretations of recorded jazz restore historical arrangements to their original sheen, bringing to life the rhythmic modernism of Jelly Roll Morton, the subtle textures of Duke Ellington and the roar of Charles Mingus in equal measure. And the rhythm section does indeed swing – mightily.

The first Barbican concert opened with a highlight, Jelly Roll Morton’s “New Orleans Bump” delivered with skin-tight finesse. The full orchestra purred through svelte Ellingtonia, the dynamic English composer Spike Hughes and springy Count Basie. We heard the roots of big band instrumentation in Don Redman’s “Chant of the Weed”; orchestration in Benny Carter’s 1933 arrangement “Swinging in Riffs”; and the first swing era hit, “King Porter Stomp”, written by Jelly Roll Morton. Ellington, Morton and Basie proved timeless, others more of their time but, in the JLCO’s hands, not even Paul Whiteman sounded quaint.

Guests and soloists from within the orchestra added spice. Violinist Chris Garrick expanded the delicacy of Ellington’s “Mood Indigo”, vocalist Elaine Delmar added sensuous wit to “Honeysuckle Rose”. Joe Temperley’s baritone sax solo on “Jack the Bear” capped a rich evening. Marsalis helpfully put each short piece in context; though these introductions were crisp, they made the concert a bit stop-and-start.

The following night began with the barnstorming modern jazz standard-bearer, Dizzy Gillespie’s “Things to Come”. Two full sets emphasised continuity by placing the modernism of Mingus and Gillespie and the cool voicings of Gerry Mulligan alongside late-period Ellington and Basie. And, to underscore the point, the encore was swing pioneer Benny Carter’s final arrangement, “Again and Again”, written for the JLCO in 2000 when he was in his 90s.

Gillespie was the central figure, his humour, rich lower registers and experiments with Latin jazz captured in full. Modern jazz gives more space for soloists to express themselves and the JLCO were generous to their hosts. Soweto Kinch guested with fiery alto sax on the opener; Alex Wilson took to the piano for a Latin jazz brace; and Pete King duetted coolly with Temperley.

The final Barbican concert celebrated British big band history with a specially assembled band, guest musicians and a narration by broadcaster Geoffrey Smith. None of the scores from the 1930s remain, and the first pieces were transcribed from recordings on which a strict-tempo stiff British upper lip was infused with the soul of visiting African-Americans such as saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter. Nowadays, the lip is much looser, and early arrangements such as “Milenberg Joys” were delivered with a zesty authenticity.

The second set started with the bridgehead to UK jazz independence, pianist Stan Tracey, first with his quartet and then the full orchestra. The influence of Ellington and Monk is clear, but Tracey has his own stamp. The narrative moved on through the New Jazz Orchestra – its arrangements still sounding fresh – to the Jazz Warriors and Loose Tubes, their contrasting styles impressively juxtaposed here. A celebration of the life of the late John Dankworth had a guest appearance from Marsalis, but it was Dankworth’s widow, Cleo Laine, who upstaged everyone with her vocals, stagecraft and exuberance. ()

With the big-band canon thoroughly refreshed, the JLCO moved to the Hackney Empire to focus on contemporary music with a two-set mix of new work and freshly arranged Blue Note-era classics. Stand-outs included UK vibraphonist Jim Hart threading his way through Thelonius Monk’s “Light Blue”, Elliot Mason’s edge-of-seat trombone and pianist Julian Joseph’s Latin inflections on the final crowd-raiser.

But the orchestra’s collective might was the fulcrum and a set of originals inspired by visual artists confirmed that there are new things to say in a well-established form. The highlight was a homage to Salvador Dalí, written by saxophonist Ted Nash. Skin-tight, beat-skipping bass supported bendy brass, swirls of orchestral colour and a final cuckoo call. At the midpoint, composer Nash echoed Marcus Printup’s no-holds-barred trumpet solo in an improvised duet. Only a fraction out of step, his ghost-in-the-machine unison reverberated with surrealist edge. () The JLCO tours the UK until June 27

by Mike Hobart
Source: Financial Times

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