Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra. The Usher Hall, Edinburgh, June 2014.

Coming the evening after the Neil Cowley Trio in Glasgow, the Jazz the Lincoln Centre Orchestra, lead by trumpet maestro Wynton Marsalis, was a very different affair – it felt studied and slightly academic. The band of sixteen players certainly didn’t build up the same head of stream – the exuberant energy – that just three had the night before.

Ostensibly a celebration of the seventy fifth anniversary of Blue Note records, the two sets largely comprised music taken from huge Blue Note catalogue, but with a couple surprising additions from elsewhere, too.

The performance seemed dominated by two Scottish musicians, one present, the other sadly absent. The latter was local Joe Temperley, who, though scheduled to play, hadn’t been able to make trip from his adopted home the USA. Marsalis told the audience that he had asked Temperley what the band should play that night, and that determined the opening and closing numbers.

The surprise guest – very much present – was Scottish violinist Nicola Bernedetti, who played two pieces from Marsalis’ long work “Blood on the Fields”. It was a coup by Marsalis, and one much appreciated by the audience (including me) – Bernedetti is a favourite with Scottish music lovers as well as being a worldwide star. But last time I saw JALCO play, they had featured some local (London) jazz musicians, and I thought it was a pity that they hadn’t invited some players from the thriving Scottish jazz scene along. It might have introduced the sell-out crowd to some musicians they might not ordinarily see.

The Blue Note music featured was mostly from the classic period of the late 1950s and early 1960s. There is a wide repertoire to choose from, but in the whole they shied away from the more popular or obvious choices. There were pieces by Jackie McLean, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, and a couple by the recently deceased Horace Silver, amongst others. But no Thelonious Monk, for instance – one of the major figures of twentieth century music who released some major recordings on Blue Note.

The orchestrations seemed a little too reverent, taking the originals as the way the tunes should be played, rather than the starting off point for musical explorations. The arrangement of Sidney Bechet’s “Weary Blues” was the most respectful of all – rather than featuring the whole orchestra, it was arranged for a septet, and sounded like a reproduction instead of a modern interpretation of a pre-war classic. It felt somewhat of a waste – I wondered what “Old Wine”-period Gil Evans might have made of it. It was disappointing that it was this tune that got most applause, prior to Bernedetti’s surprise appearance.

The closing number of the second set was a very respectful and beautiful rendition the finale to Duke Ellington’s “Black, Brown and Beige” suite. This suited the orchestra’s feeling precisely. When Marsalis announced that they’d be closing with an Ellington piece – Temperley’s suggestion – I hoped that they’d commissioned arrangement of a tune from “Money Jungle”, Duke’s Blue Note collaboration with Charles Mingus and Max Roach. But this was better – rich and luscious with exquisite playing, capturing the mood and style the original.


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