Editor: Marc Bridle
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Seen and Heard Prom Review
PROM 21: The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra/Wynton Marsalis, Royal Albert Hall, Saturday 31 July 2004, 10pm (AN)
Wynton MARSALIS and Herlin RILEY Evolution of the Groove
Charles MINGUS (arr. Ron Westray) Mexican Moods
George SHEARING Lullaby of Birdland
Ted NASH La espada de la noche
Joe TEMPERLEY Fine and Mellow
Ornette COLEMAN Peace
*encore: Duke ELLINGTON ‘Symphonette’ from Black, Brown, and Beige
Ten o’clock on a summer’s night. The air was heavy and sticky, papers and programmes fanned sweaty brows, murmurs of excitement and anticipation charged the sweltering arena… a fifteen-strong jazz band claimed centre stage and their captain, the illustrious Wynton Marsalis, greeted his expectant audience with a compliment that boded well for the evening ahead: "…so pleased to be at the Proms…the greatest music festival in the world."
Yes, that’s right – the Proms. Not Ronnie Scott’s, not the Club de Jazz de Santiago, not an authentic pub in New Orleans. For the second time in two years the Proms were playing host to Marsalis’ 1992-inaugurated Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (LCJO), and for the first time in many more years this reviewer had the privilege of witnessing the grand occasion.
After his preliminary introduction, Marsalis announced the first item – the programme, we had been warned, would not necessarily follow as printed. Evolution of the Groove is a five-section drum concerto, and composers Marsalis and LCJO drummer Herlin Riley took centre stage. This was easily the best-performed piece, and not least because Marsalis and Riley are two of the strongest band members.
The second section was captivating: heady drums and percussive effects (foot and trumpet-mute stamping) married with the sweltering climate to create something out of Conrad’s Congo. Riley’s fearless drumming spun out of the relentless pounding and opened the floodgates, celebrated by screaming trumpets.
The fourth section was a gem of a different hue: a more civilised affair, we were treated to a delightful saxophone duet and an athletic tour de force from trombonist Ron Westray. Most exciting of all was Marsalis’ trumpet solo – phenomenal speed was no obstacle to consummate power and clarity; terrific runs to extreme registers showed off his famous technique.
Evolution of the Groove finished on a very dramatic note. Frantic drumming on the tambourine eventually settled on a sexy beat that ushered in Eric Lewis at the piano. Soon after, spoken interjections from Riley spread through the band. Throughout, a performative combination of improvisation and absolute pre-determined precision matched the fluidity of the composition itself. A shame, therefore, that an ungenerous acoustic made a meal of the bright brass instruments but struggled to hear the piano and double bass, the latter of the two suffering the severer muteness.
Next in line was LCJO member and trombonist Ron Westray’s arrangement of three tunes used by Charles Mingus on his album Tijuana Moods. The main protagonists were Marsalis and Westray, who both shone in and out of the fluctuating rhythms – particularly impressive was Westray’s effortless rejection of the accelerated 2-time rhythm, instead maintaining an earlier, more relaxed tempo. His trumpeting colleague, on the other hand, negotiated every nuance of speed with unsurpassed virtuosity and physical flair. To have known at the time that this would be Marsalis’ last piece of wizardry would have hurt.
But at least we had the pleasure of his insightful introductions: (I paraphrase) "…a depressed Duke Ellington in the early 1930s was lifted by the warm reception of his music in England [cue: applause in audience]. Hence Lullaby of Birdland composed by fellow-Englishman George Shearing."
Recently graduated vocalist Jennifer Sanon joined the LCJO for the first of two sung items. She has a lovely sweet tone enhanced by mild huskiness but, unfortunately, lacks in power, enunciation and conviction. Of the sentences that could be deciphered from Joe Temperley’s Fine and Mellow, "he treats me awful mean" and "he drinks and gambles" (presumably not happy occasions?) were delivered with silver-toned smiles. More attitude please.
Sombreros flew for La espada de la noche. Conceived in three parts, the more modern outer sections cushioned the traditional fiery Flamenco outburst. Shimmering cymbals, a bass-tremolo-enhanced piano solo and sultry long-held notes in the trombone conjured an exotic eastern spell. Marcus Printup’s magisterial trumpet fanfare carried us out of the calm (a little prolonged for some tastes) and into the Flamenco dance led brilliantly by composer/reed section member Ted Nash.
The most modern music of all was served up as the official finale (there was bound to be an encore request!) Ornette Coleman’s Peace was launched by the largely neglected piano – Lewis plucked and ran his fingers up and down its strings. These experimental gestures he alternated gradually with conventional playing at the keyboard…the sound effects won the musical battle and knocks on the piano struck a chord with the ensemble who derived a regular beat. A fabulous transformation!
Considering the LCJO’s reputation as the most accomplished modern exponent of Duke Ellington’s music, it would have worked in the programme’s favour to honour this status with more than an encore piece. Marsalis presented the final section of the last movement of Ellington’s masterpiece Black, Brown and Beige that narrates the historic journey "from slavery to emancipation…i.e. from the outhouse to the penthouse!" The spotlight shone on baritone saxophonist Temperley, who lead the serenade with a composure and musical sensitivity that forgave a disappointed expectation of more Marsalis.
In short, a real treat for a night at the Proms, but not enough Marsalis, not enough piano and bass, and not enough Golden Classic Jazz. A fitting analogy? Thus sang the Duke: "A Prelude to a Kiss."