Wynton Marsalis' JLCO Red Hot & Retro At The Barbican

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The 1938 Carnegie Hall concert that brought together Benny Goodman's hit-making orchestra and stars from the Ellington and Basie bands was a game-changing moment for 20th century America, both artistically and socially. Carnegie Hall, a temple of classical music, was opening its doors to a new world. It was also lending its stage to a glimpse of social harmony that – though yet to be fulfilled, 80 years later – was nonetheless a high-profile showcase for white/African-American artistic liaisons that were inconceivable to many in the 1930s.

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra came to London's Barbican to celebrate that landmark's 80th anniversary – with founder Wynton Marsalis discreetly concealing himself in the trumpet section, and lively local stars Clare Teal (voice), Jim Hart (vibes), and clarinetists Giacomo Smith and Adrian Cox from the Kansas Smitty's House Band circle joining the Americans. The JLCO caught the elusive glide of a 1930s swing groove and the garrulous horn-section polyphonies with an offhand flawlessness that even Goodman the legendary martinet might have approved of, and the programme stayed close to the original, a sprint through 20-plus tunes in two tight sets.

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Highlights of the first half included a smoothly-oiled 'Don't Be That Way' (with leader/saxophonist Victor Goines on clarinet sharing solos with tenor saxist Walter Blanding), a hurtling 'I Got Rhythm' for a scintillating Jim Hart spurred on by a fired-up Adrian Cox, some tender Bix Beiderbecke impressionism from trumpeter Kenny Rampton, and a terrific account of Fletcher Henderson's alternately stuttery and sultry arrangement of Irving Berlin's 'Blue Skies'. A crackling, tone-shifting, rhythmically fearless Marsalis trumpet solo opened the second half on Goodman's and Harry James' 'Life Goes to a Party'. Goines and Ted Nash roused cheers for their clarinet relay-race on 'Dizzy Spells', Blanding and Sherman Irby shared earthy sax speculations on Ellington's 'Blue Reverie', and Giacomo Smith, Hart, and pianist Dan Nimmer flung fireworks at each other on 'Stompin' at the Savoy'. 'Sing, Sing, Sing' was the predictable but still irresistible finale, with JLCO brassmen Elliot Mason and Marcus Printup in full cry, and all the clarinetists – Goines, Nash, Cox, and Smith – reflexively swapping phrases as if the notes were red hot.

The only thing missing was a little more sense of the import of the original gig in Victor Goines rather scholarly announcements – but the music left an indelible impression that something extraordinary had happened that January night in 1938.

– John Fordham
– Photos by Mark Allan/Barbican