Given the crippling costs of keeping 15 musicians in gainful employ, big bands are largely a thing of the past. But this sumptuous performance by Wynton Marsalis's stellar unit was a reminder that an orchestra remains a vital resource to any jazz musician. It offers both power and precision. Since the early 80s the New Orleans trumpeter has been exploring and extending the heritage of acoustic jazz, using 30s swing, 40s bebop and 50s post-bop as templates for his own creations and this final night of a five-day residency at various venues in London presented a panorama of those vocabularies. There were arrangements of legends like Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson and Jackie McLean and there were also original pieces by JALCO members such as saxophonist Ted Nash. His Dali suite, set in the tripwire time signature of 13/8, was a highlight for the intoxicating swirl of the horns, which culminated in Nash's alto becoming a dramatic echo to a stabbing improvisation by trumpeter Marcus Printup.
However, the presence of British guest musicians also raised the bar. Vibraphonist Jim Hart, tenor saxophonist Jean Toussaint and pianist Julian Joseph all took hard swinging solos and vocalist Cleveland Watkiss was imperious on an express train rendition of McLean's "Appointment in Ghana", in which his scat choruses revealed a timbral richness and phrasal trickery that had the horn players nodding in approval. In a delicious passage of his solo, Watkiss quoted the first part of the theme of Thelonious Monk's "Green Chimneys" at lightning speed before twisting its harmony in an entirely new direction. Yet what became apparent throughout the evening was the relevance of big band music to other genres, simply because of its enormous sonic range.
On slow passages the ornate, rippling textures evoked ambient music, on faster numbers, as the brass plunged deep into the low register, there was funk aplenty, and when the whole ensemble was in full flow, there was a soundtrack in search of a movie. Decked out in sharp suits and seated in three rows under the Hackney Empire's proscenium arch, Marsalis's orchestra indeed offered a big-screen spectacle for eyes and ears alike.