Wynton Marsalis at the Barbican, review

Before Wynton Marsalis led his Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra (JLCO) on to the Barbican stage, they were welcomed as the latest “international associate” of the Barbican by the centre’s managing director, Nicholas Kenyon. It was a significant moment. Jazz has often been described as “America’s classical music”, but this appointment says something different. It says JLCO is the same kind of animal as the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. It has the same collective virtuosity, the same cultural weight, the same great tradition.

It didn’t take long for the JLCO to vindicate the first claim. The across-the-board strength of this 15-piece big band is astounding. Every attack was razor-sharp, every luscious piled-up 13th chord beautifully tuned and voiced. The sound was also a tribute to Marsalis’s skill as a jazz composer. The material we heard was nearly all his own, and he teased a marvellous range of colours from the band. Some harked back to great jazz orchestrators, some (like the fascinating flutter-tongue warblings on muted brass in Tree of Freedom) were entirely his own.

But unlike the Leipzig Gewandhaus, every player in a big band has to step out of the frame and become a striking individual. Again there were no weak links, though some players were especially strong. Marcus Printup turned his trumpet solos into perilous high-wire acts (very different to the focused intensity of Marsalis, who – as always – took his place among the trumpets at the back, rather than playing the big band-leader). Ted Nash, one-time player with Benny Goodman and Mel Lewis, played several solos, including one on flute that was a model of relaxed elegance.

As a recreation of a tradition it was mightily impressive, though the lack of really distinctive inventions in Marsalis’s recent Suite meant that admiration never quite tipped over into the unbuttoned joy that the greatest jazz brings.

After the interval the temperature rose with the arrival of Spanish pianist Chano Dominguez. He’s inspired Marsalis to infuse flamenco idioms into his music and the results did have a fascinating hybrid flavour, as well as irresistible, foot?stamping vigour.

But for me the best moment came when Dominguez and JLCO pianist Dan Nimmer engaged in a head-to-head competition. The moment one finished a virtuoso riff he leaped up to make way for the other, while the band egged them on. Marsalis has always insisted that jazz’s seriousness is rooted in fun and joie de vivre, and here was the proof of it.

by Ivan Hewett
Source: The Telegraph

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