Wynton Marsalis remains best known as the brilliant trumpet player who can play classical, loves jazz and treats rap with disdain. This year’s residency at the Barbican, however, has emphasised his writing skills and critical opinion has been mixed.
The final two concerts were the UK premiere of Marsalis’s Swing Symphony. The work, subtitled “Symphony No. 3”, combines symphony and jazz orchestras for an ambitious meditation on the roots of the jazz pulse – here, Sir Simon Rattle conducted the London Symphony Orchestra alongside Marsalis’s Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. But at this event, jazz was a fleeting moment, soloists remained seated, and solos were as likely to originate from the Marsalis pen as from an instrumentalist’s imagination.
The symphony opens with the throb of timpani and a brief blast of brass. Marsalis then turns on the strings, tea-dance lush, and spices them with swing. Ragtime, lopsided and drunk, pirouetted into orchestral brass; a New Orleans dirge was taken up by the full orchestra and ended on a snippet of brass. It all joined up, came at a terrific pace and was very 1930s, like tuning a Depression-era radio dial.
As the symphony progressed, Marsalis pursued new angles – sharp, modernist ones. Orchestrated LSO percussion supported Afro-Cuban brass, bravura bebop recalled Dizzy Gillespie’s short-lived big band and eight double basses lightly bowed a high-toned pentatonic line.
Marsalis also writes lovely melodies, and as motifs zipped from woodwind to strings, burst into fragments or became film-score lush, the riches of a lead sax over Ellingtonian brass stood out. And the trumpeter, buried in the centre of the combined orchestras, delivered a sprightly chorus and a quiet final cadenza for a low-key finish.
Before the interval, the LSO played Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, a useful comparison. Marsalis’s work clearly stands up. It’s more angular and changes direction at speed – he treats the orchestra as an improvising soloist – but shares the same fireworks and optimism. The audience loved it. Eventually, Marsalis returned to lead his musicians on a quietly loping “Dukes Place”. Each short break was perfectly sculpted, before a scorching chorus came to an immaculately precise halt.