Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra & Wynton Marsalis continued their Barbican residency with a tribute to young Lennie Bernstein, part of the centenary celebrations taking place for the American composer and conductor across the 2017 and 2018 seasons.
The orchestra and their fearless leader are blessed with the sort of ensemble playing, improvisational intelligence and deep musical legacy that make them the foremost proponent of orchestral swing anywhere in the world. Turning their attention to highlights of Leonard Bernstein’s canon is therefore an intuitive marriage of two quintessential ‘sounds’ of America. Although both parts of the show leant heavily on the musical theatre work of Bernstein, the first half was especially populated by re-workings of pieces like the Candide overture, ‘Cool’ from West Side Story and a coupe of pieces from the little performed Wonderful Town. Though infrequently performed, those following the LSO and Simon Rattle’s own centenary programme may have caught the semi-staged Wonderful Town at the end of last year. To have that as a comparison point, particularly the way in which Gardner distributed the vocal lines in ‘Conversation Piece’, is to understand the brilliance and understanding of these works among the band (whether improvising or reading from the pad).
The treasure trove of this composer’s legacy is ripe with options for an orchestra like Jazz at Lincoln Center given his clear love of jazz, it’s rhythms, colour palette and sound world. In the second half, this exposition of works interspersed the musical theatre works with both ‘Lamentation’ from the Jeremiah-inspired Symphony No.1 and the ‘Gloria’ from his mass. With Walter Blanding’s soprano sax taking the soprano vocal line in the former and plenty of New Orleans-tinged improvisation in the latter, it was a rich set-up for a finale medley that indicated how much more music was straining to make the cut for this programme.
Vincent Gardner’s prominence both in the narration of the concert and arrangement of much of the music (responsibilities that would traditionally be Wynton’s) demonstrates the legacy and succession planning underway at JALC. Are these the overtures of a baton being passed? Possibly. Moreover, on this form —and demonstrating this level of style and purpose— we can confidently all put faith in these custodians of jazz, culture and humanity wherever they go, whoever they are celebrating.