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

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»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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