Wynton Marsalis’s Swing Symphony, Barbican, review

“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” That old line hardly speaks to us now. But it still vibrates with truth for Wynton Marsalis. This virtuoso trumpeter, composer and bandleader has often spoken of the mysterious potency of swing to combine freedom and discipline. And above all, its power to unite a bunch of musicians in celebration. For Marsalis, musicality and sociability are always linked.

It’s no surprise that among his many large-scale works devoted to big themes in the African-American experience (two of which we’ve heard during his Barbican residency with the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra), there’s one devoted to swing. His Swing Symphony was jointly commissioned in 2010 from four top-rank orchestras including the London Symphony Orchestra.

The LSO was present at the Barbican on Wednesday, along with Simon Rattle. They warmed up with Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, which pulsed with a rhythmic energy that presaged what was to come.

After the interval, the orchestra returned with the 15 players of the Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra, and Marsalis tucked modestly away among the trumpets. At a signal from Rattle, band and orchestra let rip a raucous shout, and then we were immersed in what sounded like a street parade.

It was the start of a journey through jazz’s history. The energy and invention were amazing; at one point we had a swinging fugue. One could hear the sounds of America itself, above all the hoot of trains. One would expect Marsalis to revel in his own band’s palette, but he showed a keen sensitivity to the orchestra’s, too. The most enticing colours came in a strange, almost sinister nocturne, full of muted trumpets and flutter-tongued flutes.

There were fine solos from the band, including a deliciously liquid turn from baritone sax player Joe Temperley and a stratospheric trumpet dance from Marcus Printup. Marsalis gave the orchestral players a chance to shine, too, with solo spots for the timpanist (which brought approving glances from the band), and principal cellist. The five saxophonists and the cello section shared a duskily beautiful slow swing. In all it was a fitting climax to the residency, which has given us food for thought as well as joy.

- By Ivan Hewett
Source: The Telegraph

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