(Buxton Opera House. 10 July 2023. Live review by Gabriel Taylor)
Wynton Marsalis – Trumpet
Alan Barnes – Saxophone / Clarinet
Dan Higham – Trombone
Joe Webb – Piano
Will Sach – Bass
Will Cleasby – Drums
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Having brought the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to London for an electrifying night at the Barbican, Wynton Marsalis travelled north to headline Buxton International Festival’s 2nd season of jazz performances. Bringing Marsalis to Buxton Opera House, accompanied by some of the UK’s top exponents of the early jazz style, from different generations, was a huge coup for the festival, as one could hear from the wall of applause that greeted Wynton when he arrived onstage. The concert was proof that early jazz still has very much more to say. Its language is surely growing in parallel with that of the modern idiom.
Who better to lead a conversation of this kind than Marsalis? As one of – if not the – leading advocates for the preservation and expansion of the traditional sound, he carries an unquestionable gravity in his music and his speech as an ambassador for the values specific to pre-bop ensemble playing. It’s a different kind of attitude, a different kind of swing, and when you hear it played at this level, and at close quarters, and with a completely full hall, it’s a different kind of feeling and experience altogether.
Distinguished reeds player Alan Barnes provided a soulful, lyrical presence in the dual role of clarinettist and alto saxophonist, his fluency and experience invaluable to the wonderfully balanced group sound. There are not many who would be able (or want) to pull off a solo after Wynton on Ray Noble’s ‘Cherokee’ at breakneck speed, but Barnes showed his class, effortlessly guiding the flowing harmony with burning, granular semiquaver lines and merging into swooping melodies that felt almost snatched out of the Gershwin songbook.
Bassist Will Sach and drummer Will Cleasby were the rock of the ensemble, swinging, locking in on all four beats, rooted, inventive. Their partnership was the reliable source of that good feeling, fertile for development but wholly grounded in their roles for this idiom, from the buoyant New Orleans groove of ‘Oh When the Saints’ to the set’s deepest slow swing of ‘St James’ Infirmary’ where Wynton delivered the lines in his own voice then took to the horn, as with ‘2:19 Blues’. Where these two young musicians really proved their musicality, however, was in their solos – nothing in excess and yet totally intriguing, and even when at the peak of intensity it remained measured and undoubtedly individual.
I was able to hear the band in rehearsal in the beautiful St John’s Church, across the road from the venue, I was immediately aware of the dynamic Wynton was promoting through every action; laughing, discussing, leaning in closer to exchange musical phrases – it was a conversation that he was engaged in, and to not engage in it would feel out of place. Of course, by the gig, it seemed as though they’d been playing together for years, not simply because of their abilities but, crucially, because the idea of feeling comfortable had been made the default position by their leader.
Trombonist and Musicians’ Company’s Young Jazz Musician 2021 winner, Dan Higham had a particularly daunting position as the youngest player in the ensemble. And yet, as soon as his strong, resonant tone projected into the Opera House, the tenderness of his quiet plunger playing and control of timbre dispelled all doubt. That side of his playing had clearly impressed Wynton; his confident up-tempo blowing and control in the upper register were also hugely impressive and affecting. His great rapport with Marsalis in rehearsal and in concert was truly enjoyable to watch and to hear.
Joe Webb’s virtuosic piano technique yielded extraordinary and beautiful moments – some of the best left hand stride this side of the pond and Ellingtonian flourishes injected with Messiaen harmony turned Wynton’s head on multiple occasions. The real highlight, though, was his ability to stretch out into the language of McCoy Tyner, Brad Meldhau and beyond without losing his connection to the spirit of the older melody. It made me reflect that, if you can make the new stuff swing like the old stuff… then you’re very clearly doing something right.
As for the leader himself, his sound remains a phenomenon which cannot be translated into recordings, as well-produced and as numerous as they may be. Now having heard him live for the very first time, I felt as though I had been let in on a secret: the real magic is only accessible through hearing metal vibrate and walls hum around you – it’s a reminder of the humanity that Louis Armstrong gave to the world, and of the astonishing depth and magnitude of which Wynton is capable. He and the work he does with musicians need to be seen and heard to be believed.
Gabriel Taylor was the guest of BIF and his round up report of the festival’s jazz weekend will follow