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Jazz: Duke of the 20th century


ON TUESDAY night at the Barbican ace trumpeter Wynton Marsalis brought centenary birthday boy Duke Ellington to town with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, swinging a sequence of standards with gusto and style, though no one with an ear for old records would pretend that it was quite "the real thing". But then Marsalis wouldn't pretend that it was. He's taking the band around the world, spreading the Ellington gospel in his own style, though to judge from last night's performance, most of the ideas are Ellington's own.

The concert didn't so much start as waft into the hall, with piano, bass and drums quietly creeping beneath the audience chatter before Marsalis appeared with trombonist Wycliffe Gordon for the "Black and Tan Fantasy". The wailings and wha-whas were instantly recognisable and so was the growled reference to Chopin that ends the piece. "Rockin' in Rhythm" was the next to arrive with trumpeter Seneca Black blowing the main solo. Marsalis took a back seat, shared a joke with his men, and the pent-up atmosphere soon relaxed. It was good to hear "Lady Mac", from the Duke's Shakespeare suite, Such Sweet Thunder. A pungent tonal blend suggested, as Marsalis himself confessed, that "deep down, he always knew that she had a little ragtime in her soul".

"Concerto for Cootie" placed a boyish, bespectacled Ryan Kisor centre stage, toying with doleful repetitions before bursting in with the big central tune. The Duke loved trains and "Track 360" described trains that pass in the night with reeling clarinets, pumping trombones, and drummer Herlin Riley achieving a perfect diminuendo as the trains thundered into the waiting silence. Joe Temperley's baritone sax was a husky, lyrical "Sophisticated Lady", someone that the audience was happy to meet. Riley returned in full force for the fourth dance from the Liberian Suite with a repertoire of effects that ranged from clattering sticks to a full artillery, and clarinettist Victor Goines helped colour the mellow - and extended - tale of Ellington's "The Tattooed Bride".

After the interval, we paid a brief visit to the "Sidewalks of New York" before returning to the Liberian Suite for dance number five and another ochre-coloured solo from Temperley with Riley providing the exotic percussive backdrop. A Broadway street scene came next, replete with blasting horns, and when Marsalis cued the title number from Such Sweet Thunder, I doubt that even Ellington himself could have made a better job of it. Posterity may well judge Ellington's many Suites as his most enduring contribution to concert repertory and it was great to hear the evocative "Isfahan" from the relatively late Far East Suite.

Marsalis is a great fan of late Ellington but "Old Man Blues" is a child of the Twenties and the band's up-tempo performance had a real Cotton Club ring to it. But if any Duke title earned the status of a signature tune it was "Take the A-Train", which drew a volley of audience approval.

A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper