|Wynton Marsalis. Portrait by William Ellis. All Rights Reserved|
Wynton Marsalis Quintet
Ronnie Scott’s , 19th August 2011, fourth night of five. Review by Sebastian Scotney)
By the end of tonight (Saturday’s) show, the Wynton Marsalis Quintet will have played two houses a night this week for five nights, a total of ten shows. The entire run sold out within a few days of opening for booking back in May. The quintet have not just been doing the advertised shows. They’ve been participating in the Late Late Show. And I hear there was one surprise guest with th band one night, a rare appearance by clarinettist Bob Wilber, who makes his home in Oxfordshire, but whom Marsalis works in New York: he brought Wilber in to be artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Benny Goodman centenary tribute.
What stays in these ears and this mind from the Marsalis’ quintet performance is the level and pace of communication, within the band and with the audience. Every melodic goody, every rhythmic challenge thrown out gets responded to somewhere in the band. Bassists often have the most watchful eyes, and Carlos Henriquez, from the Bronx, an alumnus of Tito Puente’s band, misses nothing. He locked into a couple of duets with Wynton, but was very often dovetailing ideas with 25-year old Treme-featured New Orleans pianist Jonathan Batiste.
Batiste has astonishing keyboard facility and improbably long fingers. He bagged the applause for a solo on Lady Be Good in the style of Art Tatum, and went straight on to do another, equally characterful and purely pianistic, in the style of Thelonious Monk.
With drummer Ali Jackson the communication comes with a lot of joy humour, semaphored by his pitch dark eyebrows. He keeps unbelievably crisp time, and the trickery – notably an entertaining look-no-drums two-stick chorus at the beginning of the set.
The quiet man, the exception in the band is Walter Blandings Jr. Eyes often closed or looking into the distance, he seemed to take time to come into his own, but he did so mainly as instigator for Marsalis to respond to. And he gave as good as he got on What a Little Moonlight Can Do, taken at a speed of which a policeman might say: ” Yo’re not so much driving fast as flying low.”
And then there’s Marsalis. The enjoyment, the fun come from professionalism, intent and organization. I’m told the band didn’t just sound-check on arrival in London, but had full rehearsals. He was also playing almost purely acoustically, allowing the audience to hear his sound from different directions. He gave a lot of variety. A blues-soaked version of Comes Love had him on plunger mute and growling, the semiquavers were flowing at great speed on What a Little Moonlight.
The programme I heard was – I’m told this was not typical at all – mostly older standards, the only new composition being Marsalis’ own modal march Free To Be. The concentration on the old sets me thinking….
And what I think is thank God for Wynton Marsalis. He does have the presence, the visibility to bring jazz onto the radar of London’s culture writers. The arts editor of one weekly magazine which last covered jazz with a review of one gig from the 2009 London Jazz Festival mentioned on Twitter on Thursday that he was in Ronnie’s this week. Another arts feature writer who did this hatchet job on ALL contemporary jazz a few years ago (perhaps his opinion has changed?) was also on a red bench tonight.
While in most countries of the world the centrality of jazz to the music of our time is a given, in Britain, culture editors for their own convenience package it as an quaint, marginal, irrelevant legacy activity. And perhaps this desperately myopic vision can be reinforced by venturing out to hear Wynton?
As I hope this site proves every day of the year, they are wrong, wrong, wrong.