Wynton Marsalis promised that the final evening of JLCO’s three-night Barbican residency would “capture the impact of George Gershwin’s music on the jazz tradition”. This was accomplished in flamboyant style. The trumpeter’s introductions were as concisely eloquent as his few short solos, while JLCO’s ability to conjure earlier jazz styles remains unrivalled. Over the evening they referenced late ragtime, cool-school modernism and most points in between.
They opened with the pioneering swing of “I Got Rhythm” — a transcription of Don Redman’s early 1930s recording — and followed it with “Summertime”. The latter was a gorgeous soprano sax homage to Sidney Bechet featuring Victor Goines improvising over an arrangement transcribed from a 1947 radio broadcast. In the second set the orchestra captured the opulence of the Duke Ellington arrangement style with “Rhapsody in Blue”. The only dull note was a Stan Kenton cover of “Fascinating Rhythm”, which came midway through a solid first set.
But JLCO has its own house style, as it had shown with Thursday’s exploration of Wayne Shorter’s futuristic genius. The Gershwin performance celebrated the past, but still managed to introduce unexpected angles. Pianist Ahmad Jamal’s poise and playful use of dynamics are about as far removed from big band orthodoxy as you could get, yet in “But Not for Me” these subtleties were conjured by muted trumpets, flutes and clarinet in Sherman Irby’s captivating arrangement.
Equally impressive were the late ragtime obscurity “Rialto Ripples”, arranged as a pocket history of early jazz, and Ted Nash’s deconstruction of “Nice Work If You Can Get It”. “Rialto Ripples” was the evening’s highlight, a stylistic extravaganza that zipped from ragtime two-step to the pristine modernism of Elliot Mason’s trombone. Guest dancer Virgil Gadson rounded out the performance with a subtle and thrilling display of body-popping moves and silent movie references.
“Nice Work If You Can Get It” stretched Gershwin’s melody over cross-rhythms and introduced the melancholy of dark-toned dissonance, reminding us that though some Marsalis introductions might name-check Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, over the decades jazz stripped Gershwin’s songs of sentiment to tell a different story. This was underscored by the encore, an impish portrayal of a New Orleans funeral, Jelly Roll Morton’s “Dead Man Blues”