Live Music + Gig Reviews

Wynton Marsalis @ Barbican, London

18 June 2010


As one of its International Associates, the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra enjoys exactly the same standing with the Barbican as the New York Philharmonic and Leipzig Gewandhaus.

Last week it more than proved why as it provided the Barbican’s first ever International Residency, entitled United in Swing. This weeklong celebration of all things jazz included concerts in venues as diverse as the Vortex, the Hackney Empire and Victoria Park, as well as workshops with local students and schools.

The orchestra’s performances in the Barbican Hall on 17 and 18 June also felt like master classes in the history of jazz. With the first focused on the 1920s and ’30s, and the second on bebop, they both possessed clarity of purpose and featured exemplary playing.

The first concert guided us through such masters of ‘early jazz’ as Jelly Roll Morton, Don Redman, Eddie Durham and Fletcher Henderson. Unsurprisingly, Duke Ellington featured prominently with his compositions enabling the band to show off its peerless ability to contrast the sounds of the brass, wind, piano and percussion. The Mooche of 1928 saw the trombones and trumpets ‘rasping’ (and who pulls that sound off better than the orchestra’s leader, Wynton Marsalis?) in response to the sliding wind and seductive saxophones. The sharply executed Old Man Blues of 1930 also demonstrated Ellington’s deft wit since the piece, with its racy tempo, is reminiscent neither of the blues nor of an old man. It was also fitting to see Joe Temperley, the only band member to have played with Ellington in the ’60s and ’70s, providing the baritone sax solo.

Marsalis introduced each piece in his usual unflashy, but nonetheless charismatic, style, his warmth and sincerity coming through at every point. He cracked his fair share of effective jokes, but the funniest moment came when a lady heckled him halfway through the evening to play Jack The Bear. Without batting an eyelid, he pledged to do so at the end provided that everyone clapped enough for them to perform an encore. In the event, the audience obliged and the band kept its promise.

Through Marsalis we learnt where each piece fits within the overall development of jazz, and alongside pot boilers like Mood Indigo, we heard such incredible tunes as Benny ‘King’ Carter’s Symphony in Riffs of 1933, a piece that showed the hallmarks of swing a full two years before that is acknowledged as being born. Also amazing to hear were guest violinist Christian Garrick, and the singing of Elaine Delmar whose voice proved it could be as deep as it was expressive.

If the playing was highly accomplished, it remained a little subdued. But this was mainly a consequence of the repertoire being performed, and no such criticism could be levied against the following evening’s concert, which turned to bebop. On the first evening the music was understood, on the second it was felt. The atmosphere was more highly charged from the off, and as the audience greeted the band it felt as if they had just returned from an interval, albeit one that had lasted 24 hours.

The concert featured a wealth of guest soloists and improvisation. In Gerry Mulligan‘s Festive Minor, Peter King on the tenor sax and Joe Temperley on the baritone jammed together for so long that even the orchestra was surprised (and thrilled). In the first movement of Dizzy Gillespie‘s Manteca Suite, in which the band produced a cacophony of colour but a very coherent sound, Alex Wilson let rip on the piano, followed by Satin Singh on percussion. Another guest soloist, saxophonist Soweto Kinch, performed Gillespie’s Things To Come. Marsalis had first heard Kinch when the latter was 13, and now he provided the trumpet solo for the piece, playing like a runaway train.

Marsalis was keen to stress that there was an ‘after bebop’ but not necessarily a ‘beyond bebop’. Similarly, he emphasised that following the introduction of bebop not all jazz became subservient to it, showing how Ellington’s film score for Paris Blues of 1961 incorporated some elements while remaining distinct.

With the audience on a high, the concert concluded with ‘King’ Carter’s Counterblocking, the great man having worked with the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra before his death in 2003. It ended a memorable two evenings in which the audience really learnt something about jazz, and never before has a history lesson been quite so enjoyable.

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