Jazz review: Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at the Barbican

There was a full complement of hyper-sophisticated technicians in the ranks (all of them male, incidentally), but not for the first time the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra left that nagging feeling of listening to a one-man band. Wynton Marsalis’s influence as artistic director is so all-pervasive that, even on a night when the trumpeter did not supply any of the arrangements, it was his voice that came through loudest.

The upside, as in all of the band’s previous visits to London, lies in the attention to detail in the writing and the tightness of the ensemble playing. This centenary celebration of the composer Leonard Bernstein — an artist and educator who did much to bridge the cultural divide — was another display of big-band music as an ultra-sleek machine. There were some adventurous choices too. The splintered Conversation Piece from Wonderful Town was an ideal vehicle, while Lamentation, from Bernstein’s First Symphony, added traces of Coltrane-esque mystical yearning. Both pieces were arranged by the trombonist and music director Vincent Gardner, who also delivered the slightly halting commentary between numbers.

What was often missing elsewhere was the sheer exuberance and emotional intensity to be found in Bernstein’s best work (the pianist Bill Charlap nailed some of these same pieces in a glorious trio recording released a decade and a half ago). It doesn’t help that the visual presentation at JLCO concerts is invariably so drab, the musicians marooned on the wide-open spaces of the stage. The orchestra could learn a lot from how another bandleader, the Italian poet-cum-pianist Paolo Conte — who is certainly no wild-eyed showman — uses subtle lighting.

Gardner’s setting of Ain’t Got No Tears Left self-consciously injected a measure of Basie-style bluesiness. The bassist Carlos Henriquez anchored a sure-footed treatment of the mambo from West Side Story. It did seem perverse, however, to opt for an arrangement of Cool that, for all its precision, lacked the tension and brio of the original. Instead of Bernstein’s switchblade-wielding hoodlums we got the equivalent of a pack of portly middle-aged gents working out with hula-hoops.

by Clive Davis
Source: The Times

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