Master of jazz cool

Way back in 1999 Wynton Marsalis pulled in the biggest crowd for a jazz evening at the Perth Concert Hall. The choir stalls were filled to bursting, there was not a seat to be had even in the upper galleries and chairs were put on the stage next to the musicians, with audience members literally in their faces.

To say that Marsalis had drawing power back then would be an understatement and if his reputation had not expanded to megastar status over the past 20 years we would not be looking at the house-full signs that have already gone up at the Perth Concert Hall for his first PIAF performance in 20 years.

Marsalis is the jazz maestro that everyone loves, the keeper of the flame of American jazz from its origins in ragtime to the high points of the swing era and bebop. He also is the jazz artist credited with building on the legacy of bandleader Duke Ellington to combine jazz and classical orchestrations.

It is this combination of the symphony orchestra and the big band that Marsalis brings to Perth in March with the performance of his Swing Symphony (No. 3). Along with the massed forces of the WA Symphony Orchestra will be Marsalis on trumpet leading his big band — the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra, comprising more than a dozen of America’s top jazz musicians.

His Swing Symphony was commissioned in 2010 by four internationally renowned orchestras — the Berlin Symphony under Sir Simon Rattle, the London Symphony Orchestra, the New York Symphony and the Los Angeles Symphony.

Since its premiere in Berlin the symphony has been performed by the commissioning orchestras in their home cities. Rattle has conducted the symphony with both the Berlin and London orchestras.

The Swing Symphony, which will follow the first half of jazz standards selected by Marsalis at the concert hall, has been described as a virtual history of American jazz from its ragtime origins to the current traditions of what we now know as modern jazz.

It takes the listener on a journey through all the eras of jazz — from New Orleans to the Lincoln Centre, no less. Along the way are movements that reflect such artists and eras as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus and Gunther Schuller.

There are also references to the era of the Charleston and the tango, the soulfulness of tunes such as Body and Soul, bebop and the music of the Mid west, known as the Kansas City sound.

There are also fugues, reflective piano solos and what has been described as “a strange, almost sinister nocturne full of muted trumpets and flutter-tongued flutes”.

According to one critic, Marsalis is “brilliant at changing the mood, jumping from Ellington to samba, to bebop and what sounded like a Golden Age-era film score. One could hear the sounds of America itself, above the hoot of trains.”

Now 54, Marsalis is among that older generation of artists determined to preserve the rich and varied history of jazz through performance, education and dedication to the values of tradition.

Marsalis has sometimes has been accused of being a custodian of the past rather than a widener of tradition and it’s true that he has often railed against the supposed decadence of modern music and the devaluing of built-up traditions.

But Marsalis is not merely an apologist for the past. He sees his role as being as much an educator as a historian and the music he plays as part of the continuum of American history. In a sense, for him, playing music is a political act that can only lead to even greater democracy.

High-flown rhetoric from a musician, to be sure, but Marsalis is sincere.

As he has said: “Jazz is not just ‘Well, man, this is what I feel like playing.’ It’s a very structured thing that comes down from a tradition and requires a lot of thought and study.”

Wynton Marsalis performs sold-out concerts at the Albany Entertainment Centre on February 29 and the Perth Concert Hall on March 3 and 4.

by Ron Banks
Source: The West Australian

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