Wynton Marsalis, Barbican, review

For many jazz lovers, big-band music is a sideshow in what is essentially a small-scale, chamber art. Wynton Marsalis doesn’t see it that way.

While every other major jazz talent of recent decades has focused on their own art, partly by trying out different partnerships, this impassioned and opinionated trumpeter and composer has gone the other way. He’s practically merged his own identity with the band he became director of almost two decades ago, the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra.

At this concert, the first of their week-long residency at the Barbican, the orchestra treated us to a two-hour survey of the big band’s origins in Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and Count Basie, with a courteous nod to a British pioneer (Spike Hughes) and a glance back to the prehistory of the band in Jelly Roll Morton.

It was a reminder of what a magnificent instrument Marsalis has created over the years. Does there exist anywhere in the world a band so finely balanced across every section, so virtuoso in all its individual parts, and with such an invigorating blend of discipline and joy?

And what interesting use Marsalis makes of it. He’s often accused of a sterile revivalism, but the striking thing about these performances is how subtly they honoured the originals, by insinuating original touches into them. Count Basie’s Blue and Sentimental had a witty lurch into double tempo midway through, Don Redman’s Chant of the Weed had subtle new colours that made this not very inspired number seem masterly.

The orchestra’s version of Mood Indigo was actually plainer than the Ellington’s famous 1930 recording, but the balance of clarinettist Victor Goines, trombonist Chris Crenshaw and guest violinist Christian Garrick was so perfect who could complain?

When guest singer Elaine Delmar joined the band for Ellington’s I Got It Bad, and That Ain’t Good, the band found a raunchy, bluesy voice, the trumpets wailing ostentatiously while the piano dropped salt tears. It was slyly self-parodying but affecting nonetheless.

All this movingly highlighted the way the big band embodies jazz’s communal roots. The downside of Marsalis’s approach is that solo players don’t have much space to establish their personalities. Only in the encore – Ellington’s Jack the Bear – did Marsalis allow the timescale to expand. Baritone sax player Joe Temperley and trombonist Eliot Mason seized the chance, showing how beautifully they can spin a long line out of not very much.

By Ivan Hewett and Paul Gent
Source: The Telegraph

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