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20 August 2011

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.

By Jonathan Derbyshire

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.

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