To round off Wynton Marsalis's sixteen day residency at the Barbican, his fifteen-strong Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra joined with the full forces of the London Symphony Orchestra to perform the British premiere of his Third or Swing Symphony of 2010.
If seeing this most pre-eminent jazz trumpeter share a stage with one of the world's greatest conductors, Sir Simon Rattle, seemed just a little novel, it was by no means an outlandish idea. Marsalis's performance and compositional output has always been characterised by total musicality, and one sensed that Rattle not only enjoyed tackling something a bit different, but also genuinely believed in the piece.
Marsalis's six movement creation saw the most innovative and brilliant interactions between the JLCO, which was positioned centre-stage in the Barbican Hall, and the LSO that surrounded it on three sides. Each section of both orchestras had its own role to play in highlighting synergies and contrasts between the classical and jazz worlds, with the groups together creating effects that could never have been achieved by one of them alone.
The performance also proved the symphony's strict musical worth. There are probably only a hundred composers ever whose symphonies are regularly performed around the world today, which highlights just how difficult they are to write. Marsalis has succeeded in orchestrating something for 109 separate players that not only provides us with a whistle-stop tour of the history of jazz, with movements covering ragtime, Charleston, Kansas City swing, bebop and contemporary jazz, but stands as an original and innovative composition in its own right.
The first movement of the 55-minute long piece opened to rather blasé chant-like rhythms, and the more bluesy sounding JLCO contrasted well with the LSO's rhythmic but lyrical upper strings, urgent lower strings and forthright brass. The second movement, which explored the Charleston and included whistle and siren sounds, saw a brilliant alto sax solo whose line was then echoed in the wind and strings. It also featured possibly the only moment in the evening when Rattle fell short of requirements. Some of the most thumping jazz beats sounded slightly amiss, possibly because he was (understandably) out of his natural zone in conducting them. Still, this minor issue was soon forgotten once Joe Temperley, who played with Duke Ellington, got going on his baritone sax.
The third movement saw excellent exchanges between the two orchestras, and while the LSO's own brass section never tried to capture the same sound as the JLCO's, its own unique strains had their own jazz quality and made a significant contribution to the night. One section had a feel of West Side Story about it, before the movement's close subjected the audience to a host of bombastic and exuberant sounds. The fourth movement, devoted to bebop, was more racy and angular and saw the composer delivering one of his incredible trumpet solos, before the music grew to possess a film noir-style edge.
The fifth movement, which explored more contemporary jazz, saw effective work from the LSO's wind and brass sections while the strings played an arguably more 'sophisticated' line than they had previously been handed. The final movement featured clapping and pulsating rhythms as the instruments moved up to full force before the piece finished with the most innovative sound of all: a single breath uttered by the entire orchestra. Marsalis himself has said that this could signify either satisfaction at a job well done, or relief that it is all over. After such a tremendous performance, there is every reason to believe that it represented the former.
As for the criticisms, each player surprisingly remained seated as they delivered their solos. This may have been to reflect symphonic convention, but something was certainly lost by their face, and to an extent sound, becoming lost in the crowd. Similarly, there were no programme notes, and reading those by Dr. Dave Kopplin for the recent West Coast premiere reveals how everyone from beginner to jazz expert would have benefited from such a thorough explanation of the piece.
The first half of the evening was devoted to the LSO performing Sergei Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances of 1940. This exemplary performance of an exquisite piece succeeded particularly in bringing out the contrasts between the exuberant and eerie sections in the three-part first and third dances. They proved to be the last thing that Rachmaninoff ever composed, and initially enjoyed a mixed reception, although now they are recognised as masterpieces. By the same token, we shall only really know if Marsalis's Swing Symphony is a classic if it is still being regularly performed sixty years from now, but it's more than possible that it will.