Wynton Marsalis Quartet open up to the spirit of Ornette at Barbican

Wynton Marsalis is more forward-thinking than he gets credit for – some of the sense of the trumpeter's traditionalism regarding jazz, and aspects of his 'controversial' image, are surely overplayed to sell tickets. Although recently there was a backlash against certain comments he made attacking some rap music as "more damaging than a statue of Robert E. Lee". Yet, since he emerged in the early 1980s, Marsalis is a valued keeper of the flame for acoustic jazz. And since 1991 much of his energy has been directed into the running of the massive Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Thus a rare quartet show at London's Barbican was a chance to get the measure of him at close quarters and to find out how much his vision included a sense of the new and the now.

The quartet's 80-minute set got off to a pleasingly challenging start with the 15-minute suite-like odyssey 'The Magic Hour'. He haunted the higher registers with an avant-tinged noise and cheeky showmanship. The disarmingly interrupted theme of Ornette Coleman's 'Ramblin'', also took a left-field point of departure but soon the group were settling into their comfort zone. Ornette himself was not afraid to be rude or crude or to shock. Marsalis is just too darned tasteful.

'Ramblin'' is a good example of his split loyalties. Long before Coleman theorised his approach as 'harmolodics', what Marsalis explained was "melodic material, in all keys at one time", Ornette was stretching harmony to breaking point. With Wynton you don't feel the same dramatic surge and danger.

WyntonMarsalisQrtBarbican2018 MG 4124-1

He is nonetheless abundantly creative and playful. He obviously enjoys the playing of Daniel Nimmer on piano and especially the prodigal English 25-year Mark Lawandowski on bass, a creative player who did most to consistently shake the tree, ranging from wide riff-bending to melodic études. But was Marsalis enjoying their lively interpolations on the familiar or just the familiar's reassuring lilt?

Marsalis's dedication to the trumpet is beyond dispute. He shares the same versatility born of an obsession with the intricacies of this coil of brass as any avant-gardist working extended techniques. In Roy Eldridge's 'After You've Gone' his use of the mute gave the theme a distant feel of dusty shellac, addressing and defusing the sentimental feel by foregrounding it a stylistic point.

The brilliance and articulation of his tone was beautifully expressed with a sense of intimacy - which was heightened further when he left the stage and promenaded through the spiralling aisles of the auditorium, shaking hands with appreciative audience members thrilled to be this close to the legend. Such a charming evening didn't shake the abiding sense of Marsalis as a bit of a traditionalist. You left with a gourmand's sense of having fared an enjoyable and tasteful repast. If you had to find fault you could quip that it was too faultless. Because it's at the fault lines where the earthquakes happen...

AJ Dehany

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