Wynton Marsalis, Barbican, London

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At this gig, the American trumpeter Wynton Marsalis presented the opulent textures and dazzling dynamics of the Lincoln Center’s 15-piece jazz orchestra celebrating the experiences of rail travel. Under the title “Full Steam Ahead”, the two sets resonated with the rhythms and moans of the golden age of rail. But as Marsalis pointed out, this would be no mere rose-tinted recreation of a bygone age.

Rail travel played a pivotal role in Afro-American culture both as a means of economic migration and as political and religious metaphor – the underground railroad spiriting slaves to freedom; gospel’s glory train to salvation. And over two ovation-winning sets, the Lincoln Center Orchestra successfully manipulated the somewhat melodramatic literal sounds of rail travel with the genuinely dramatic emotions of hope, separation and loss.

The first set, given over to the compositions of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, opened with Marsalis, accompanied by pitch-perfect brushes, delivering a melody-laden slow blues off-mic. As others took the solo spot, orchestral textures were added – declamatory long notes, woody clarinet, muted trumpet, moaning trombones. Ellington’s compositions currently have no finer medium than this virtuoso-laden orchestra, which spins endless variations on the blues with a dizzying array of textures – lush saxophones juxtaposed with slashing piano discords; velvet-toned trombones with gentle baritone sax; slabs of brass with vocalised trumpet.

Ellington was so saturated in the sounds of the railways that his commission to celebrate the coming of Hi-Fi was the pyrotechnic sound-picture “Track 360, Two Trains Passing in the Night”. Marsalis, whose compositions dominated the second set, also has a thing about trains, and his modernist twist to an Ellingtonian palette almost measures up. Now the solos were longer, and the extremes more marked – Marsalis whistling to hummed accompaniment; quickfire bop trombone; a saxophone homage to Lester Young. And throughout, the ensemble retained its brilliance. The encore, a final and delightful surprise, was a 1920’s small-group vocal take on “I’m Alabama Bound” with a furiously-fast “Cherokee” as coda.

Tour details: www.wyntonmarsalis.org

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