Swing Symphony

Concert Hall, February 25


Wynton res
Wynton Marsalis (trumpet nearest to camera) in the middle of two orchestras. Photo: Ken Butti.

Jazz, like all improvisational idioms, is a dialogue, and it is this element that Wynton Marsalis especially emphasises in his Swing Symphony – that and the rhythm implicit in the title. Marsalis’s third symphony is a seven-movement work for unamplified jazz band and orchestra, and the dialogue begins by having the 15-piece Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra embedded in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the former’s horns a nugget of gold amid the strings.

Conceptually the piece is a potted history of jazz drawing on the harmonies of some of the music’s great standards. It demands the SSO be groove-conscious and the JLCO blend, and under David Robertson’s enthusiastic direction, both delivered.

The first movement had the strings sliding into the midst of some ragtime freneticism like a Southern belle flouncing into a bar. Slapstick percussion and whistles invoked the party that was the 1920s, the decade’s other side conjured by a voluptuous baritone saxophone feature (Paul Nedzela) and glorious solo violin from concertmaster Dene Olding. You could almost taste the cornbread at the outset of the third movement, Midwestern Moods, and a sumptuous dialogue between the cellos and saxophones led to a feature for the drums (Ali Jackson) and percussion.

A hurtling tempo and scorching trumpet solo from the composer heralded the arrival of bebop’s hyperactivity, before a Latin feel was laced with attractive alto saxophone (Sherman Irby). Modern Modes, which flirted with dissonance and more thoroughly integrated the two orchestras, included a stunning melody for the basses. Initially the sixth movement, Think Space: Theory, was the least focused, rather like 100 musicians in search of a soloist, but then it exploded into some of the work’s most complex and intriguing music, and the upbeat, optimistic finale had the JLCO’s reeds achieving a rapturous ease reminiscent of Duke Ellington.

The biggest surprise was the paucity of improvisation in a piece depicting jazz history. Nonetheless, despite an occasional rhythmic disconnect between JLCO and SSO, this was an exceptionally imaginative and sometimes thrilling marriage of jazz and symphonic music.