JALCO had been playing a series of gigs at the Barbican and elsewhere, together with a whole load of educational events, and their visit to the Hackney Empire marked the end of their London residency. The Barbican gigs, featuring different jazz styles each night and a host of local guests, sold out well in advance (I know cos I tried to get tickets…!).
The crowd seemed quite adoring of Wynton and the band, giving them a roaring cheer to welcome them onstage. This last gig was entitled “Modern Jazz Masters”, and Wynton promised music by Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Jackie McLean. We didn’t get any Shorter, but lots of new compositions from members of the band interspersed with their arrangements of tunes by Hancock, McLean (an intricate arrangement of “Appointment in Ghana”), Joe Henderson and Thelonious Monk.
The orchestra was joined by Jean Toussaint on tenor sax (both he and Marsalis are graduates of the Jazz Messengers’ finishing school), pianist Julian Joseph, vibe player Jim Hart and vocalist Cleveland Watkiss. The calibre of the JALCO’s musicians is such that the guests could have seemed superfluous, but they were given a lot of space in the arrangements and all delivered. Cleveland’s vocal acrobatics sounded great against the orchestral backdrop, and Toussaint’s sax playing was in fine form, but for me Julian Joseph stood out: his playing brought an intensity that had been missing, creating solos which built the tension like many modern masters before him.
For all the excellent music on stage, it felt like something was missing. It was as if the orchestra was too reverent or too smooth: it needed some grit. The concert felt a little too worthy, too refined. Neither musicianship nor the arrangements could be faulted, but it needed more – a rougher edge, more risks; some East End grime to balance the midtown smooth.