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Wynton Marsalis’ Swing Symphony

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Wynton Marsalis’ Swing Symphony
Wynton Marsalis takes a bow at the premiere of his Swing Symphony No.3

Wynton Marsalis was already a wunderkind in the art of Jazz and then he broke through the proverbial glass ceiling in the classical world two years earlier with the National Philharmonic Orchestra recording Haydn, Hummel, Leopold Mozart: Trumpet Concertos (CBS Masterworks, 1983). Two years later he first gave notice that his ideas and music tended to favour a much larger canvas than anyone of his generation right from a seminal recording Black Codes (From the Underground) (Columbia, 1985). Hiding in plain sight he released a series of three recordings that solidified his place in Jazz. The Standard Time series (Columbia, 1987-90) set the stage for work on a larger – much larger canvas. Works such as Citi Movement (Griot New York) (Columbia, 1993) and the spiritual In This House, On This Morning (Columbia, 1994)were precursors works created for much larger ensembles (the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra), such as the breathtaking Blood on the Fields (Columbia, 1997), From the Plantation to the Penitentiary (Blue Note Records, 2007) and later The Abyssinian Mass (Blue Engine Records, 2016).

In a sense, therefore a work such as the monumental The Swing Symphony (Blue Engine Records) was only a matter of time. It not only forces us to consider Mr Marsalis as a composer in the mould of Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Anthony Braxton (who may be considered as distinct from the others as say Berg and Webern – who were of a school of thought and yet – were distinct from Schoenberg, in a manner of speaking) as well as to Aaron Copeland, Virgil Thomson and Charles Ives. But back to Mr Marsalis who has now definitively ascended the high ground as a major composer and may be identified in the popular imagination as quintessentially Jazz as well as Classical and, above all American in equal measure. Certainly he is a generous proselytizer on behalf of quintessentially Black American (Jazz) music in general, tireless in his efforts to grow the international reputation for the music created by his ancestors. And by the time the dust has settled – post the premiere of this work in the US and Europe (by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony and the Frankfurt Radio Big Band) there will be no doubt of its audacious achievement.

The Swing Symphony No.3 is a masterpiece of orchestration, plain, clean-coloured, deeply imaginative and theatrically functional, and its transparency is the key factor. Moreover, even in the midst of the busiest textures everything is lucid and opaque. Mr Marsalis’ score is wonderful in keeping the many and varied instruments out of each others’ way, a masterful skill that may be attributed to Mr Masrsalis’ knack of making each part of the orchestra carry its own expressive idea, bringing a specific emotional connotation to the unfolding drama of the piece. Mr Marsalis is also a master of rhythm. The nervous energy of his orchestral music relies heavily on dance and marching rhythms, always spiced with the accents of Jazz and the Spiritual, but at the other end of the spectrum he could also achieve very complex trance-like effects as in the sedate “Movement II All-American Pep” of this symphony. His harmonies are no less elegant. Time and again through the work he seems to find new contexts for conventional intervals and familiar chords dropping them unexpectedly into very dissonant passages, making them sound fresh and new even as he dapples the work with spirited allusions to both Jazz Standards and music from the other popular American songbook.

“Movements I – St. Louis to New Orleans” and “Movement V Modern Modes and the Midnight Moan” are gorgeous variations of great harmonic and rhythmic richness which show off the sinewy orchestration, jaunty dance rhythms and use folk melodic ideas as pointers for the more complex balletic work to come. Each is a vivid depiction of the cultural topography of Jazz – indeed the most singular American music. It’s a vivid depiction of what roused generations of people from the early dancers in Congo Square and the nameless jiving faithful in jook joints and churches into a celebration of life as each venue would have it. By the time its rages into its final “Movement VII The Low Down (Up on High)” the Swing Symphony No 3 exerts a powerful force on the psyche. It’s a work that deals, in epic, quasi-mythic terms, with hope and aspiration; it tells of a people if not entirely equal, certainly spectacularly free enough to create and stamp on an entire civilisation with an unique musical topography that has spread almost to an entire planet in just over one hundred and twenty-five years.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Frankfurt Radio Big Band in a performance of Wynton Marsalis’ Swing Symphony

The traditional Jazz instruments – trumpet, trombone, bass and drumset – are assigned relatively cameo roles; although they are timely and always poignant such as the thunderous drum roll that begins the symphony and the magical trumpet that – complete with a whispering aspiration – brings the entire symphony to a close. Certainly throughout there’s an epic sweep to the work, established by arching phrases from brass and reeds and woodwinds that build in richness and complexity as other sections join in. There are moments of tension, but the prevailing sense is of a kind of grandiose serenity, which opens with the drum and climaxes in the finale with Mr Marsalis’ trumpet (in the American premiere, at least). To my mind, however, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony performing together with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, both directed by inspirational Andrés Orozco-Estrada, seemed to have the complete measure of this great and grand work. From the rapturous calm of its slow passages to the manic leaps of its scherzos and the grandeur of its final, Mr Orozco-Estrada never stints on the drama as the music seems to flow through his very body and the work emerges radiant and brightly coloured. But then again, if you watched the performance in Europe might you too may be a tad biased… and, perhaps, forgiven as well?

Track list – 1: Movement I: St. Louis to New Orleans; 2: Movement II: All-American Pep; 3: Movement III: Midwestern Moods; 4: Movement IV: Manhattan to LA; 5: Movement V: Modern Modes and the Midnight Moan; 6: Movement VI: Think-Space: Theory; 7: Movement VII: The Low Down (Up on High)

Personnel – The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Robertson The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra: Trumpet Kenny Rampton, Ryan Kisor, Marcus Printup, Wynton Marsalis; Trombone Vincent Gardner, Chris Crenshaw, Elliot Mason; Reeds and Woodwinds: Victor Goines (tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinet and bass clarinet), Ted Nash (alto and soprano saxophones, clarinet, flute and piccolo), Sherman Irby (alto and soprano saxophones, clarinet and flute), Walter Blanding (tenor and soprano saxophones and clarinet), Paul Nedzela (baritone saxophones and bass clarinet); Piano: Dan Nimmer; contrabass: Carlos Henriquez; Drums: Jason Marsalis. St. Louis Symphony Orchestra – Music Director: David Robertson; First Violins David Halen (concertmaster), Heidi Harris (associate concertmaster), Celeste Golden Boyer (second associate concertmaster); Erin Schreiber (assistant concertmaster), Dana Edson Myers, Jessica Cheng, Ann Fink, Emily Ho, Silvian Iticovici (second associate/concertmaster emeritus), Joo Kim, Melody Lee, Xiaoxiao Qiang, Angie Smart, Hiroko Yoshida, Hyorim Han #; Second Violins: Alison Harney (principal), Kristin Ahlstrom (associate principal), Eva Kozma (assistant principal), Andrea Jarrett, Rebecca Boyer Hall, Nicolae Bica, Janet Carpenter, Lisa Chong, Elizabeth Dziekonski, Ling Ling Guan, Jooyeon Kong, Asako Kuboki, Wendy Plank Rosen, Shawn Weil, Maya Cohon#, Mary Edge#, Hannah Ji#, Jecoliah Wang#; Violas: Beth Guterman Chu (principal), Kathleen Mattis (associate principal), Jonathan Chu (assistant principal), Susan Gordon, Leonid Gotman, Morris Jacob, Chris Tantillo, Shannon Farrell Williams, Christian Woehr, Xi Zhang, Jiali Li#, Lin Wang#; Cellos: Daniel Lee (principal), Melissa Brooks (associate principal), David Kim (assistant principal), Anne Fagerburg, Elizabeth Chung, James Czyzewski, Alvin McCall, Bjorn Ranheim, Yin Xiong; Double Basses: Erik Harris (principal), Christopher Carson (assistant principal); David DeRiso, Sarah Hogan Kaiser, Donald Martin, Ronald Moberly, Adam Anello**, Mary Reed**; Harp: Allegra Lilly (principal); Flutes: Mark Sparks (principal), Andrea Kaplan (associate principal), Jennifer Nitchman, Ann Choomack; Piccolo: Ann Choomack; Oboes: Jelena Dirks (principal), Philip Ross (acting associate principal), Cally Banham, Xiomara Mass**; Cor Anglais: Cally Banham; Clarinets: Scott Andrews (principal), Diana Haskell (associate principal), Tina Ward, Tzuying Huang; Bass Clarinet: Tzuying Huang; BassoonsAndrew Cuneo (principal), Andrew Gott (associate principal), Felicia Foland, Vincent Karamanov; Contrabassoon: Vincent Karamanov; Horns: Roger Kaza (principal), Thomas Jöstlein (associate principal), Christopher Dwyer, Tod Bowermaster, Julie Thayer, Lawrence Strieby; Trumpets: Karin Bliznik (principal), Thomas Drake (associate principal), Jeffrey Strong, Michael Walk, James Hynes#; Trombones: Timothy Myers (principal), Amanda Stewart (associate principal), Jonathan Reycraft; Bass Trombone: Gerard Pagano; Tuba: Michael Sanders (principal); Timpani: Shannon Wood (principal), Thomas Stubbs (associate principal); Percussion: William James (principal), Alan Stewart (associate principal), Thomas Stubbs, Henry Claude#, Zachary Crystal# (# extra musician; **replacement)

Released – 2019
Label – Blue Engine Records
Runtime – 1:03:00

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