Review: Wynton Marsalis – Swing Symphony at the Barbican

Wynton Marsalis – Swing Symphony, London Symphony Orchestra and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra
(Barbican Hall, 26th July 2012. Review by Rob Edgar)

Tonight’s concert at the Barbican Hall combined the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra, for the second London performance of Wynton Marsalis’ Swing Symphony, (symphony No. 3) bringing to an end JALC’s Barbican residency.

The night opened with Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, a charming work from the Russian-born composer’s American period. It’s an orchestral showpiece, and the end of the last movement virtually blew the roof off.

But the main event was the Swing Symphony by Marsalis – you could feel the buzz of excitement in the hall leading up to it. Marsalis’ pairing of the two different disciplines of big band and symphony orchestra is bold, even dangerous, but he is such a charismatic composer as well as performer (and he was of course helped greatly by the masterful Sir Simon Rattle) that it worked perfectly.

The first movement opened up at a comfortable speed, sounding like the kind of New Orleans street procession which Marsalis had participated in London on Wednesday for Abram Wilson’s memorial service, whilst also blending together elements of Gershwin and perhaps even Shostakovich (in one of his more playful moods).

Marsalis is brilliant at changing the mood, at jumping from Duke Ellington swing to samba, to bebop and what sounded almost like a Golden Age era film score.

The players were on top form tonight; every player in the big band took at least one solo and all were staunchly unique. Joe Temperley’s warm baritone sax tone recalled whispers of Harry Carney, in stark contrast to the raucous and frenzied solos of Walter Blanding Jr. Whilst Sherman Irby and Ted Nash were somewhere between the two.

Marsalis himself only took one or two fairly brief solos, preferring to showcase the considerable talent amassed on stage. The soloist who really stole the show tonight though, was Victor Goines on clarinet and saxophone. His playing used just the right amount of rough glissandi and other appropriate techniques that it virtually transported you to New Orleans in the 30’s or 40’s.

Much has been said about Marsalis’s ability to orchestrate and there were some fantastic moments; the LSO’s woodwind section produced a sound uncannily like a Hammond organ, and there was an extended section for the double basses alone, full of interest and character. Some might cavil that with over 100 players at his disposal, he could have done more with them: with the basses in mind, the big band’s bass player could – to my ears, it is possible it was lost in the mix – to  have been given more individual prominence rather than mostly duplicate the part allotted to the LSO’s eight-piece section.

That is my own little hang-up though, and it certainly seemed that nobody else cared/noticed; at the end of the night there were three separate standing ovations, two encores. Marsalis came across as hugely humble and modest, seeming uncomfortable with taking the spotlight and directing the audience’s applause to his band members and the orchestra.

Categories: miscellaneous

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