WYNTON MARSALIS — JLCO with Wynton Marsalis and St. Louis Symphony : Swing Symphony (review)

WYNTON MARSALIS — JLCO with Wynton Marsalis and St. Louis Symphony : Swing Symphony album cover Album · 2019 · Third Stream Buy this album from MMA partners
4.5/5 ·
Certainly Wynton Marsalis has worn many different hats in his career as a musician, but possibly his strongest talent is as a classic 3rd stream composer, and his latest effort “Swing Symphony”, does much to bear this out. Much like Stravinsky and Ravel, Marsalis is a ‘natural composer’, that is to say, no matter how complex or complicated his music may get, it always seems to roll along as naturally as someone walking down the street whistling a favorite melody. This is an ambitious piece that strives to present the history of jazz in a concert hall setting, but don’t expect a dry history lesson, do expect some swingin music and plenty of hot solos backed by driving rhythmic accompaniment.

Much of “Swing Symphony” recalls that time period when jazz first met classical under the guidance of composers like Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Darius Milhaud and others. In that respect this piece could be seen as ‘future retro’ in that it captures the modern tone of a certain era that manages to remain modern in appearance for all history, for instance, the always futuristic style known as art deco. In many ways, the more experimental music of the 20s and 30s is the art deco of the musical world. Wynton’s symphony does not stay in the 30s, but even as the presented musical styles move up to the late 20th century, its that early mix of classical and jazz that marks the overall tone of this piece.

Avoiding a laborious retelling of all the events in “Swing Symphony”, it is interesting to note some of the highlights. Before the symphony gets into jazz’s roots as ragtime, there is a brief opening section that recalls Ellington’s version of African music. Yes, it all starts with Africa, and I never doubted Wynton would start anywhere else. After this, the ragtime arrangements kick in and then there is a trumpet break, who is this, Buddy Bolden or Louie Armstrong or possibly a little bit of both. In the third movement of the symphony we find ourselves in the swing era and Wynton does a great job of capturing the sound of the Ellington saxophone section.

The fourth movement opens like a tribute to Dizzy Gillespie as we move from bebop to Afro-Cuban. A particularly melancholic saxophone melody closes out this movement and it is quite possibly a reference to the tragic downfall of one of jazz’s most prominent geniuses, Charlie Parker. As we move through the last three movements the music becomes more abstract and dissonant, often recalling Edgar Varese, Charles Ives, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and Gil Evans. Movement five features a modal hard bop jam in the style of Coltrane and Miles, and in movement six we get some rather brutish and clumsy rhythms, possibly a satirical jab at fusion. Movement seven brings back an African groove, this time existing halfway between the worlds of the Duke and Sun Ra with a dash of Stravinsky and the symphony closes out with a floating abstract return to swing.

“Swing Symphony” is one of those pieces that should gain strength through the ages and hopefully it will find its deserved place in the concert hall 3rd stream repertoire. Its easy to imagine a future symphonic program that might include Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, Stravinsky’s “Ebony Concerto”, Ellington’s “Black, Brown and Beige’, and Marsalis’ swingin symphony.
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