Jazz Album Review: “Swing Symphony” — Quintessential Wynton Marsalis

By Steve Feeney

Wynton Marsalis’ Swing Symphony is his third effort in the grand form.

Swing Symphony by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Robertson (Blue Engine Records – digital only)

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Robertson, perform the “Swing Symphony.” Photo: Frank Stewart.

Certain names and images may come to mind as you listen to the latest creation, a symphony, from the prolific composer/bandleader/trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Earlier American composers who combined the formal discipline of concert music with the liberating sounds of jazz include Scott Joplin, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Duke Ellington, and Leonard Bernstein. Now 57, Marsalis’ Swing Symphony is his third effort in the grand form.

As might be expected, this hour-long, seven-movement work, combining the 15-piece Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with the St. Louis Symphony, generally tilts closer to the jazz end of the musical continuum in this live recording from 2018. By now, most who care will have taken a position on (or ignored) Marsalis’ controversial down-the-middle historical perspective. In fact, this enjoyable piece might be his best argument for its virtues so far. At least it may be his most audience-pleasing. The composer’s efforts at refinement do not detract from the music’s pleasure as a soundtrack for pop movie images that may pop into your head as you listen.

Indeed, much of the jazz that Marsalis has long championed is easy to associate with visual images we’ve filed away in our mental vaults over the years.  Of course, in many cases, the music may have come before the pictures to which they have become attached. Still, there are continual connections made to mid-20th century American cultural markers, here mostly of the positive, upbeat sort.

“Movement I – St. Louis to New Orleans” establishes some parameters for the source material of the symphony, while also showing how it will be explored in an expanded orchestral context.  Throughout the entire work, there’s a focus on blurring the traditional — though highly artificial — division between “high” and “low” culture. This is American music crafted for the concert stage,  a refined version of the popular that provides enough grit to convey the original’s underlying spirit.  In this case, it is as if a Crescent City march  has been choreographed by a musical sophisticate.

“Movement II – All-American Pep” brings us further into the urban sphere, with echoes of the Charleston and other danceable tunes of the past. Strings and woodwinds add subtlety, as does a slow section that feels Ellingtonian, in all the best ways.  When the strings come in they add sentimental sweep — as if Marsalis was scoring for a film made in the late ’30s.

A more polished sound takes over “Movement III- Midwestern Moods” — after a clackety-clack train-rhythm is established at the opening. Orchestral counterpoint brackets a tenor sax solo that offers hints of film noir.  A midwestern inspired (?)  passage leads to an accelerating call-and-response that suggests a dance-hall frenzy.

“Movement IV – Manhattan to LA” continues the push toward a melting pot of mid-century musical influences.  A high-flying trumpet solo leads to an Afro-Caribbean moment.  Then, LA noir returns at the close.

The symphony could end here and would stand as a substantial work.  But, it doesn’t.  Swing Symphony carries on for an additional (shorter) three movements.

The provocatively titled “Movement V – Modern Modes and the Midnight Moan” taps into the modernist orchestral underpinnings of Marsalis’ vision. Copland comes to mind, as do images of innovative mid-twentieth century choreography.

“Movement VI – Think-Space: Theory” begins with gentle harmonies from the orchestra, which slowly become more refined.  An advancing commotion upsets the  initial balance to the point where one wonders if the center will hold.  Are we being brought to the brink of the post-modern era?

Hand claps assert an organic connection in “Movement VII – The Low Down (Up On High).”  The musicians alternate between generating a swampy rumble and the smoothest swing — a juxtaposition that aptly brings this quintessential Marsalis composition to a close.

Steve Feeney is a Maine native and attended schools in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. He has a Master of Arts Degree in American and New England Studies from the University of Southern Maine. He began reviewing music on a freelance basis for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in 1995. He was later asked to also review theater and dance. Recently, he has added BroadwayWorld.com as an outlet and is pleased to now contribute to The Arts Fuse.

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