This 90-minute work, which would be a major exploit for a classical composer, is a Herculean achievement for a jazz trumpeter, even if he has won classical awards alongside jazz ones. And the way that he modestly buried himself within the orchestra was an indication of his determination not to use this piece as a personal star vehicle.
On stage was the unlikely troika of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, London Adventist Chorale, and London Philharmonic Orchestra. On the podium was Kurt Masur, whose brainchild this was: he saw in Marsalis the man who could revive the symphonic jazz form that thrived in the Fifties with Duke Ellington.
The work may be structured in 12 movements to reflect the 12-bar blues, but its start was so complex as to banish any such simplifications. From low choral growls, the first movement rose to a Stravinskian fury on the violins, followed by Bernstein blasts on brass. There was an exuberance about the way Masur got his troika on the move, which echoed throughout.
Each movement had its own character. One began with a sulphurous tango, seguing to languor, then to a Cuban groove, before Marsalis's trumpet took wing over a stomping beat. Another began as pure Mahler, before expanding into big-band mode. A movement entitled "Save Us" opened with thunderous percussion, followed by unpitched wails, and set up a hysterical miasma out of which Marsalis's trumpet soared, bold and clear.
At other times, his pianist Dan Nimmer took over with brilliant riffs, and virtuoso saxophonists let rip: each solo was greeted with a jazz-style round of applause. I heard much talk in the interval about whether this was a "classical" or a "jazz" evening, and the beauty of it was, there was no answer: it was neither, and both.
But the most remarkable thing was that it never felt like three incompatible groups trying to fit together: the Philharmonic players swung, the jazz players blended gracefully, and the choir took their turn with fluid expressiveness. And when, in an astonishing echo of Beethoven's Ninth, Marsalis brought the sun out in the final movement with the music of a New Orleans street band, all the tensions of the piece were resolved with grace.Reuse content