REVIEW : Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra & Wynton Marsalis - Leonard Bernstein at 100 at the Barbican

The JLCO's wind and brass with Vincent Gardner soloing
Photo credit: Mark Allan / Barbican

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra & Wynton Marsalis - Leonard Bernstein at 100
(Barbican Centre. 28 February 2018. Review by Thomas Earl)

In this, the 100th year since the birth of American great Leonard Bernstein, it is fitting that the Barbican should play host to our friends from across the Atlantic, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, as they showcased some of the maestro’s finest work as part of their fifth International Associate residency. The Barbican held a unique place in Bernstein’s heart. Conducting the London Symphony Orchestra here in 1986 to an audience which included a certain Queen Elizabeth II, Bernstein soon assumed the orchestra’s presidency, a role he held until his death in 1990.

"Ever-amiable" - Vincent Gardner - with Elliot Mason (right)
Photo credit: Mark Allan/ Barbican

The audience were chaperoned through the evening by the ever-amiable Vincent Gardner who - alongside Richard DeRosa - had arranged much of the music, offered brief vignettes chronicling the myths, muses and madness that gave rise to the night’s repertoire. Discussing the stop and start nature of conversation, Gardner granted the audience fresh perspective on his arrangement of Conversation Piece, the band musically narrating a dinner date’s path from fragmented clauses to boisterous cacophony as Carlos Henriquez (bass), Wynton Marsalis (trumpet) and Dan Nimmer (piano) shared their thoughts with increased verve. A testament to their quality, however, the result was more choir than catfight. Gardner also journeyed with us to ancient Israel, where we listened in on the Prophet Jeremiah’s unheeded foretelling of Babylon’s fall. Bernstein’s Jewish roots are heard in the “Lamentation” from his Symphony No.1, its metronomic, North African pulse granting Walter Blanding the space to carve sheets of Trane on soprano saxophone. Gardner extolled the movement’s melody as so beautiful, “it made me miss my part.”

Digging through JLCO archive footage from the turn of the century, there is little more to differentiate the band almost two decades on than the odd hairline – when you get a seat with JLCO, you stay there. The result of this consistency is an almost telepathic understanding between each of its fifteen members. Like the England rugby XV of 2003 who  experienced World Cup glory, each player observes closely those around him, making small adjustments to counterbalance his colleagues and play as one. This was exemplified by the improvised, reciprocal syncopations between Nimmer and Elliot Mason during the trombonist’s solo in a movement from Bernstein’s Mass. Although there is no big band world cup, it is this unity of purpose that cements JLCO as one of the planet’s finest big bands.

Marion Felder and Wynton Marsalis of JLCO
Photo credit: Mark Allan/ Barbican

The night included several crowd favourites from Bernstein’s masterpiece, West Side Story. Sherman Irby’s mellifluous charms warmed the Barbican Hall on a snowy winter’s evening with Somewhere, although my stifled “mambo!” during a rousing rendition of The Dance at the Gym (Mambo) was a solitary effort. Marion Felder has a wonderfully understated approach to drums, sitting craftsman-like underneath the evening’s more bluesy and mournful numbers. On occasion, though, the (very large) Barbican Hall craved more energy from its rhythm section pilot, perhaps by sacrificing a touch of musical precision for a little more ballast. A quite epic evening, however, captured by one audience member’s remark, “whoever knew a piece entitled Gloria in excelsis could swing so hard?”

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