Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra/Marsalis, Barbican, London – review

Midway through the opening night of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s third Barbican residency, its leader, Wynton Marsalis, flagged up swing as a prime source of inspiration. “It brings people together in time and space,” he said, though at this gig, the steady walking-bass lines that underpin swing rhythm came with the whomp of tablas, or strode out of oddly metered scales.

Wynton Marsalis and the JLCO were performing with Pakistan’s Sachal Jazz Ensemble, a sextet of genre-savvy veterans from Pakistan’s once flourishing film industry. As with previous JLCO world music collaborations, the orchestra’s arrangers got under the skin of a radically different musical tradition. For two sets, the gently undulating textures of south Asia intertwined, merged and were juxtaposed with the drama and dynamics of the JLCO, sometimes smoothly, sometimes with a jolt.

The performance opened with flautist Baqir Abbas playing the twisty motif of “Tere Ishq Nachaya” over droning sitar and the patter of three Pakistani hand drummers led by Ballu Khan on tabla. The orchestra took up the refrain on flutes of its own and then scattered fragments of melody between the saxes; modal rhythms fluctuated with the blues and short bravura ensembles cued solos to admire before the theme was finally restated

Each arrangement was equally rich in detail, delivered something fresh and gave soloists space to impress. Highlights included Sherman Irby’s alto sax curling round the Lou Donaldson theme “Blues Walk” and Dan Nimmer’s percussive ragtime piano on Jelly Roll Morton’s “New Orleans Blues”. And whenever Marsalis took a turn on trumpet, his technique and imagination stood out.

The magic, though, was witnessing two top-quality bands from different traditions finding common ground and feeding off each other’s ideas. Pakistani music is steeped in improvisation, and the Sachal’s lead soloists equal the Americans in dexterity and speed of thought. Nafees Khan shimmered on sitar, and bent his lines to the blues on “Take Five”, while Abbas was one half of a memorable phrase-swapping flute battle with the American Ted Nash.

The concert ended with the genre-swapping intricacies of “Rhythmesque”, composed by the Sachal’s conductor, Nijat Ali. It climaxed impressively with fast-strummed sitar and rousing brass, but the encore had already been won.

JLCO’s final concert of its three-day residency marked the 75th anniversary of Blue Note Records, the label that, in the 1950s and 60s, set the gold standard for lean and supple small-group modern jazz. JLCO captured the fire and focus of its finest releases with tight rhythms, subtle shades and arrangements that revealed hidden depths.

Ted Nash’s arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s composition “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum” was a thoughtful and fluent investigation of a harmonic structure that is trickier than it seems, while “The Thespian”, arranged by Vincent Gardner, gradually evolved from chamber jazz to the tricky bebop of the original Freddie Redd theme. And there were two beautifully recrafted compositions by the late pianist Horace Silver, who died on June 18 – “Peace”, a bittersweet ballad, and the rolling “Señor Blues”, featuring gritty Sherman Irby on alto sax.

JLCO’s solo strength matches their ensemble virtuosity, so it was quite a feat for two young UK guests to stand out, let alone fit in. Alto saxophonist Nathaniel Facey – rich-toned and refined – and vibraphonist Lewis Wright – angular and spellbindingly virtuosic – joined seamlessly for one number on each set.

The concert finished with Marcus Printup climaxing the modal roar of “Free for All” with a high-note trumpet blast. Marsalis remained seated in the trumpet section, where he had spent the night giving the lowdown on each tune and soloing rarely. He began to file out with the band, but, barely noticed, remained front stage. Then, with applause at a peak and only the rhythm section remaining, he launched an extended after-hours jam that confirmed what a wonderfully fluent and inclusive trumpeter he is. And with the JLCO he has a band to match.


This review has been changed since first publication in order to credit Marcus Printup for the trumpet finale of “Free for All”

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