Wynton playing at Barbican Hall
I saw the Duke Ellington Orchestra once, when Duke was dying, and his leading soloists were winding down their musical lives. But it still sounded like a group of inspired chancers who liked mixing order and happenstance.
Wynton Marsalis’s Lincoln Center Orchestra does not really sound like that, despite the stagey banter that goes on between the musicians, as if they’re constantly startled by each other’s ingenious hipness. For the first half of this concert, the band played an all-Ellington repertoire with exquisite polish and precise attention to the throbbing colours of those orchestrations. But it was not until the second set – of Marsalis’s own recent music – that the players loosened up.
Marsalis has devoted himself to cherishing the classic African-American jazz legacy (he is scrupulous about namechecks and dates of origin in his announcements), and he and his talented orchestra came very close to recreating what a 1930s or 1940s swing gig must have sounded like. The concert, titled Full Steam Ahead, was devoted to the place of the railroad in American musical life. Marsalis’s ringing trumpet runs and talkative curling notes eloquently introduced Across the Track Blues, and the piece thickened very gradually in texture, steered by two graceful clarinet solos, into typically Ellingtonesque reeds-and-brass harmonies, closing with understated wah-wah sounds. Happy Go Lucky Local and Take the A Train (Ellington’s and Billy Strayhorn’s best-known train evocations) were standouts, the former a particularly dazzling exercise in multi-voiced ensemble interplay at a driving momentum – reeds hooting, brass-riffs pumping and baritone-saxist Joe Temperley soloing unconcernedly against it all as if his clamouring partners could not have distracted him whatever they did.
The orchestra broke into smaller ensembles for the second half, opening with a breezy early-New Orleans polyphony on Due South, before hitting an engaging mix of bebop’s intricacies and relaxed swing on Express Brown Local, from Marsalis’s extended piece All Rise. Jump was a fast swinger fizzing with exclamatory accents, with tenor saxist Walter Blanding inventively drawing the legacy of Lester Young into the contemporary arena. Three sections from Marsalis’s Big Train embraced evocative blues and stomping ferocity, and an encore on Alabama Bound began with a respectful performance of the 1925 original and turned into a stunning bop-trumpet display by Marsalis, skimming through breakneck runs that would have taxed Charlie Parker’s sax, let alone a trumpet.
– by John Fordham
Source: The Guardian