Wynton Marsalis: A kind of homecoming

You can take the boy out of New Orleans, but you can't take New Orleans out of the boy.

The last time I saw Wynton Marsalis perform was in 2009, when he brought his Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra to the Barbican. I wrote about the show on this blog: "It's a wonderful band, and they come off like a glassily perfect facsimile of Duke Ellington's Strayhorn-era ensemble. Which, of course, is part of the problem, since Marsalis's life-project is to preserve the 'classical music' of America in the aspic of his own genius."

Marsalis has been back in London this week, but this time for a series of club dates with a quintet (at Ronnie Scott's in Soho). The trumpeter's curatorial instincs are intact - at the show I saw on Thursday, he described the first number the band played as a tour through "the different stages of jazz" - but the transition from concert hall to sweaty club seems to liberate him somehow; in this setting, his demeanour (and his playing) is less professorial, more relaxed.

It helps that he's got such a compelling young group alongside him: Walter Blanding on tenor and alto sax; Carlos Henriquez on bass, drummer Ali Jackson; and - the pick of a very talented bunch - pianist Jonathan Batiste. They began in sinuous post-bop mode, bringing to mind nothing so much as Miles Davis's mid-1960s quintet, with Batiste playing spiky, Hancockish lines, before the (unidentified) tune morphed into driving hard bop - a reminder that Marsalis's first appearance at this venue, 30 years ago, had been with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. Batiste is just as adept at wearing the guise of, say, Horace Silver as is he is at channelling Herbie Hancock, while Blanding did a passable impersonation of Hank Mobley.

There was a limpid ballad, in which Marsalis played a solo of startling precision, before the band was joined onstage by the veteran clarinettist Bob Wilber. That was the cue for Marsalis to return to the music of his hometown, New Orleans, which, you sense, is where he is happiest.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

Iain Cameron
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Meet Scotland's 300-year-old snow patch, the Sphinx

Snow patch watchers expect it to melt away by the weekend. 

This weekend, Scotland's most resilient snow patch, dubbed Sphinx, is expected to melt away. The news has been met with a surprising outpouring of emotion and nationwide coverage. Even The Financial Times covered the story with the headline "The end is nigh for Britain's last snow". The story has also gone international, featuring in radio reports as far away as New Zealand.

So what is it about Sphinx that has captured the public’s imagination?  Some have suggested it could be symbolic. The Sphinx represents how we all feel, helpless and doomed to a fate determined by leaders like Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. 

Regular contributors to the Facebook page “Snow Patches in Scotland”  have their own, more prosaic theories. One tells me that the British are “generally a bit obsessed with weather and climate”, while another says snow-patches are "more interesting than anything Trump/May/Boris or Vladimir have to say”.

Those more interested in patches of snow than the existential consequences of international relations could be dismissed as having seriously skewed priorities, but there's more to the story of Sphinx than lies on the surface. 

For a start it's thought to be 300 years old, covering a small square of the Cairngorms for centuries with just six brief interruptions. Last time the Sphinx disappeared was 11 years ago. Though it may melt away this weekend, it is expected to be back by winter. 

Iain Cameron, the man who set up the Facebook page "Snow Patches in Scotland" and someone who has recorded and measured snow patches since he was a young boy, says that Sphinx has shrunk to the size of a large dinner table and he expects it will have melted entirely by this Saturday.

It came close to disappearing in 2011 as well, he adds. In October of that year, Sphinx at around its current size and only a heavy snowstorm revived it.

"They tend to keep the same shape and form every year," Cameron tells me. "It might sound weird to say, but it’s like seeing an elderly relative or an old friend. You’re slightly disappointed if it’s not in as good a condition."

But why has Sphinx survived for so long? The patch of land that Sphinx lies above faces towards the North East, meaning it is sheltered from the elements by large natural formations called Corries and avoids the bulk of what sunlight northern Scotland has to offer. 

It also sits on a bid of soil rather than boulder-fields, unlike the snow patches on Britain's highest mountain Ben Nevis. Boulder-fields allow air through them, but the soil does not, meaning the Sphinx melts only from the top.

Cameron is hesistant to attribute the increased rate of Sphinx's melting to climate change. He says meterologists can decide the causes based on the data which he and his fellow anoraks (as he calls them) collect. 

That data shows that over the past 11 years since Sphinx last melted it has changed size each year, not following any discernable pattern. “There is no rhyme or reason because of the vagaries of the Scottish climate," says Cameron.

One thing that has changed is Sphinx's title is no longer quite so secure. There is another snow patch in near Ben Nevis vying for the position of the last in Scotland. Cameron says that it is 50:50 as to which one will go first.