Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, August 31
Many have tried, but no one’s succeeded like Wynton Marsalis. Collaborations between jazz musicians and symphony orchestras tend to see the latter obliged to play drab accompaniments, and the jazz players’ rhythmic fluidity stymied. Add a 100-voice choir – putting about 200 performers on the stage – and ambition might reasonably outstrip art.
Not with Marsalis’s 1999 magnum opus All Rise. Its ultimate achievement is not just to have blended orchestra, choir and jazz band, but to have united them. Sometimes his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra became a section of the Sydney Symphony, or vice versa, while the voices of the Sydney Philharmonia and the Consort of Melbourne (with soloists Emma Pearson and Michelle Nicole) were just as thoroughly integrated.
The choir opens the work, establishing buzzing rhythmic momentum with a simple chant, “Ah, zum”. Thereafter a hallmark of All Rise is Marsalis’s capacity to subvert expectations. In the first movement, Jubal Step, for instance, the big band suddenly leaps out of the middle of the orchestra with all the shock value of fireworks exploding on a dining table.
The 12 movements are intended to echo a 12-bar blues structure, most notably in the way the work resolves itself. Marsalis has also penned the libretto, which is a summation of a human lifecycle, encompassing birth, growth, love, sex and death. Add the music, and it’s a massive affirmation of life.
In some ways conception and ambition do outstrip other aspects of the composing. Quotes and pastiches of myriad idioms fly past, as if you’re on some magic train that traverses sonic evocations of time and place. Elements of Stravinsky, Ellington, bluegrass and Cuba flash by, and on one level Marsalis is like a bird that steals and hordes gems. But then you conflate that with the extraordinary sophistication of the setting of the gems; with textures that are like nothing you’ve heard before.
The composer sat anonymously in the JLCO trumpet section, while Benjamin Northey skilfully and enthusiastically directed the massed performers. I doubt the SSO members have enjoyed such a collaboration more.