The Jazz at the Lincoln Center roadshow swept into town on Thursday and a mini festival popped up around their show at Bristol’s Colston Hall. The Bristol Schools Jazz Band performed to a buzzing foyer before the evening gig. That was after an open soundcheck for the young musicians followed by an impromptu seminar with the Lincoln Center Orchestra‘s alto player Sherman Irby and trombonist Eliot Mason. The enthusiastic foyer performance’s varied repertoire of niftily arranged classics (Girl from Ipanema via Birdland to a Gil Evans’ Porgy and Bess like Summertime) warmed us up for the main event and we emerged after over two hours of a riveting celebration of ‘The Best of Blue Note’ to Andy Hague’s Quintet in full cry on the New Orleans funk of Hands Up, an Andy original. The energy levels only went up from there as the jam session got going. This was unquestionably an occasion.
The catalyst for all this buzz, the relatively rare regional visit of Wynton Marsalis’ gobally renowned big band had a lot of expectation to live up to. And they delivered in buckets. The hook for the repertoire, the back catalogue of the legendary Blue Note Records, was focussed on the label’s heyday in the 50’s and 60’s and the hard swinging, blues and gospel inflected style of Hard Bop. That was almost always delivered by small bands like Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.” I played in the Jazz Messengers.. it’s how I learned this music” muttered Marsalis as he introduced the opener ‘Free for All’. The translation of the small group sound to a big band was in the hands of the skilful arrangers drawn from the ranks of this band. It was exhilarating stuff. Little fills and embellishments from the originals became horn sections parts and backings, solos became shout choruses delivered rousingly by the whole band. The sample from the enormous library of Blue Note on this evening overlapped with other performances on the tour (Seb Scotney saw them in Cambridge) but they’ve got plenty to draw on. There was the the occasional foray into the later sixties. Chick Corea’s The Matrix was an electrifying moment with Marsalis delivering a blistering solo over more contemporary racing swing, just a nod towards the post-bop with which the leader launched his early career. A trio of Horace Silver compositions, a tribute to the legendary pianist composer who died recently, was a tour de force. Senor Blues kept morphing into different tempos and styles behind each soloist under the playful direction of drummer Ali Jackson and finished with a keening lament like solo from Walter Blanding on tenor over Carlos Henriquez‘s quietly bubbling bass riff; impossible not to hear its as a heartfelt ‘farewell Horace’. The arrangement of the beautiful, melancholic ballad Peace gave full rein to the rich, lush harmonies possible with a big band before the exuberant samba like groove of Cape Verde Blues, with an incendiary piano solo from Dan Nimmer, raised the roof. Earlier the writings of Lou Donaldson, Woody Shaw, Lee Morgan had all featured. If this was a look back to something of a golden age then there was nothing backward looking about the blowing. Shirman Irby on Blues Walk, was hair raisingly thrilling. The first purred note from Walter Blanding on the opener had my heart fluttering before Marcus Printup let rip
An encore of a quintet formed by the rhythm section behind Marsalis and Blanding was a lovely bit of icing on an enormous cake before we exited to the buzz in the bar. What a great evening, with international and local contributing. The band are in residence in London at the Barbican after this tour. Maybe next time the regional tour could be series of short residences and capitalise on the energy this visit created.