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Music review: Abyssinan Mass – Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, Barbican

15:48 27 July 2012

The Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis perform at the Barbican. 
Photo by Mark Allan

The Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis perform at the Barbican. Photo by Mark Allan

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Sixty-strong choir lifts Marsalis’s journey through jazz history

»Wynton Marsalis’s Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is a formidable beast and surely one of the tightest ensembles around.

Having held a Barbican residency a couple of years ago, it returned as part of the all-encompassing Cultural Olympiad – following the like of Blanchett and Bond as another big name draw in the centre’s super-charged 2012 programme.

The second in a series of four collaborations, which also saw the orchestra share the Barbican stage with the London Symphony Orchesta, the Mass had Marsalis’s troops joined by the 60-voice Barbican Mass Choir.

Composed by Marsalis, the work is supposed to be something of a journey through jazz history, and to this end we have swing, blues, hard bop, modal and even Latin passages.

While it certainly covers a fair bit of ground, it’s very much Marsalis’s famously purist version of events; there are certainly no forays into Ornette Coleman-esque freewheeling.

It begins with the singers lining the aisles, a spine-tingling device that bathes the audience in sound, as simple call and response phrases ring out. It’s a bit of a shame when they move to the stage.

The presence of the choir creates an exciting mix and the singers stars of the show, ensuring there’s no danger of straying into a mundane exposition of jazz styles.

The first half is especially effective, with some soaring, moving stuff from the solo vocalists. After the interval, while there are further highlights, the 15-piece orchestra at times fixates on some fairly bland melodic material.

But there’s enough here to make for a compelling evening, very much lifted by the choir’s presence.

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