Review: Wynton Marsalis Quintet at Ronnie Scott's

Wynton Marsalis, Al Ryan. Ronnie Scott's 22nd July 2013
Wynton Marsalis Quintet
(Ronnie Scott's - 1st set first night - 22nd July 2013. Review by Al Ryan)

There's always an air of anticipation about any Wynton Marsalis performance. Whether its hearing him at full throttle with the full-blown swinging majesty of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra or the intimate surroundings of his quintet - it's always an event, and last night at Ronnie Scott's was no exception .

Taking to the stage just after 7:30pm and opening the 1st set of the first night of three - six sell out shows, the crowd were in raptures as Marsalis took control of the thermostat at Ronnie's with the opening notes of ‘Knozz-moe-King’ with fine solo work from tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding and pianist Dan Nimmer. The rhythm section of double bassist Carlos Henriquez and drummer Ali Jackson provided hypnotic tempo changes that just melted into each other with such subtlety that you were constantly asking yourself what just happened there. This segued completely naturally into ‘What is This Thing Called Love’ again with sublime tenor work from Blanding and Marsalis displaying every nuance of his horn and the immense warmth of his sound.

The 51-year old was in top form as he welcomed and thanked everybody for coming out and it strikes you how humble and soft spoken the man his especially when he talks about music – everything is so completely natural even down to explaining what just happened in a number.

We got a history lesson in Jazz music too in terms of how everything is connected and how things might be categorised in some people’s minds : we heard the music of Jelly Roll Morton, Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk – but nothing was deemed old music and nothing was deemed new music, last night it all became modern music. Marsalis has always reiterated the contemporary power of even the earliest jazz. “Jelly Roll Morton’s music proves that all jazz is modern. His music captures the full range of New Orleans life which still applies today”

Marsalis' dexterity with a plunger mute is something to behold especially with a number like Morton’s ‘Tom Cat Blues’ and was a real salute to the early trumpet styles of Buddy Bolden and King Oliver. The performance was full of humour with growls, sobs and laughs from his horn with a sublime New Orleans 2 beat provided by the Nimmer, Jackson and Henriquez rhythm section. We were treated to two Ornette Coleman numbers that again just melted together in ‘Ramblin’ and ‘Una Muy Bonita’ with Walter Blanding providing the wonderfully dissonant lead against Marsalis.

Blanding is the unsung hero of the quintet, with a wonderful diversity in his saxophone sound. He showed off his full muscular tone in the Coleman numbers even managing to sound at one point like he was playing the chanter from a bagpipe (in the best possible way!!). We also got to hear Marsalis use a lot more mutes last night – he displayed complete control over his horn, harmon-muted in his own composition ‘Sophie Rose-Rosalee’ which he wrote for a friend's daughter. A sublime ballad that gave the whole group room to stretch out in the form with long lines and magical phrasing from both Marsalis and Blanding’s with Dan Nimmer providing and almost Bill Evans-ish lyrical piano accompaniment.

When Marsalis plays Monk its always interesting because you never know what’s about to happen and their version of ‘Green Chimneys’ was no exception with Walter Blanding’s switching mid way to give a blistering soprano sax solo. We also got to hear the dynamic duo of Henriquez and Jackson at full tilt in an amazing double bass, drum duet. What an extraordinary talent the two have – there's a symbiosis/ serendipity, with each anticipating the other’s moves.

The final two numbers of the set were Marsalis own composition ‘Sparks’ which I’m sure he recorded as an exclusive for an iTunes live session in 2006 and, as the encore, Jerome Kern’s “All The Things You are”‘Sparks’ is a number that Marsalis describes as “fast”, and he’s not wrong! It’s played at breakneck speed - one false move and it's curtains. Ali Jackson provided an outstanding master class in brushwork here; clarity and finesse in his technique and the ability to swing at high speed.

Much to my disappointment when I checked my watch it was fast approaching 9pm and it was nearly all over. The crowd cheered for more and one more was provided - “All the Things You Are” as a gentle ballad with Marsalis choosing to use a cup mute. The whole number was like eavesdropping on an intimate conversation between friends with Marsalis starting the conversation between muted and open trumpet phrases, Blanding changing the subject subtly and Nimmer joining in followed by Henriquez and Jackson, but the whole time nobody getting in anybody else's way.

A magnificent set by the Wynton Marsalis Quintet - all I can say is that I wish I could be there for the next 5 shows. Incidentally if you weren’t lucky enough to get tickets, this series of dates at Ronnie's also present a technological first for the club, as tonight Tuesday 23rd July at 10:30pm a live stream of Wynton Marsalis will be livestreamed on the Ronnie Scotts website to a potential audience of thousands.

Support was provided by the always-excellent Ronnie Scott's All Stars led by its Artistic Director James Pearson and featuring vocalist Natalie Williams. What a versatile singer she is - showing off her vocalise chops on ‘Lazy Afternoon’ and ‘Falling in Live with Love’ with a chorus that Anita O'Day would have been proud of. It was a well-chosen and particularly summery themed set, which was the perfect accompaniment to the current glorious weather. With beautiful readings of Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer’s wistful ballad ‘Skylark’ and Harold Arlen and Truman Capote’s ‘A Sleepin’ Bee’ the set concluded with a swinging version of Bobby Timmon’s ‘Moanin’ which featured a very witty and updated verse lyric by Ms. Williams! As a friend remarked ‘There is no audience anywhere which Nat cannot defrost!” I think he’s on to something there!

The Wynton Marsalis Quintet
Wynton Marsalis - Trumpet
Walter Blanding - Tenor Sax
Dan Nimmer - Piano
Carlos Henriquez - Bass
Ali Jackson - Drums

Set list
Knozz-moe-King/What is This Thing Called Love
Tom Cat Blues
Ramblin’/Una Muy Bonita
Sophie Rose Rosalie
Green Chimneys
Sparks
All The Things You Are

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