A small group Wynton Marsalis concert can feel at times like a base-touching exercise, setlists structured to studiously tick off many of the dominant forms of jazz from the first half of 20th century. If the intent is to educate the audience, the effect is to methodically impress on the listener the musicians’s versatility – and virtuosity.
And so it began at Emirates Palace on Monday (March 27). In just 45-minutes, the evening’s opening half saw Marsalis’s septet work through an upbeat, old school swing (an untitled tune composed for Garth Fagen’s ballet Griot New York), a lazy Latin minor blues (bassist Carlos Henriquez’s slinky Cuchifrito), a dreamy ballad (Sophie Rose-Rosalee) and a freewheeling, modal, Coltrane-esque workout in 6/4 (also from the Fagen ballet). This taster platter opened and closed with two sharp, breakneck bop numbers – Buggy Ride and the forth movement of Marsalis’s Petite Suite (for Savion) – which brought out the bandleader’s most technically demanding solo work, clear, brittle, flowing lead lines spewing greedily from his horn.
Marsalis is one of the few musicians who can sell out big theatres playing pure, club-sized, acoustic jazz, but there is no space for fat in this band’s lean, clean approach to preserving the repertory. If the mood here was perhaps a little restrained, even inhibited, it was because no one in this septet – Marsalis’s working quintet bolstered by two young horn firebrands – seemed anywhere close to breaking out into a sweat. Not least saxophonist Walter Blanding, whose elastic solo work came close to rivalling his boss’s.
Yet this stately reserve was emphatically broken after the interval by the appearance of the evening’s special guest, Iraqi oud player Naseer Shamma, whose educational efforts to preserve regional traditions rival of those Marsalis.
This was no parachuted-in regional tokenism, but a surprisingly sympathetic meeting in the middle – as much about compromise as forging new ground. The hidden linguistic link may be the slurring bent notes so integral to dixieland jazz – which in Blanding’s hands came to occupy the same stomping ground as Middle Eastern quarter-tones.
Indeed, watching Wynton growl spiralling runs in traditional Arabic modes, over rumbling mono-chordal soundscapes, was a revelation. How close this music at times sounded to the Europeanised chamber jazz fusions he vocally detests so forcibly. Is it possible that playing with Shamma might have opened ears and eyes, have shaken Marsalis’s rock-solid conservatism?
Shamma, too, made his fare share of compromises. After two engaging, suite-like arrangements blurring Iraqi and Sudanese folk melodies into jazz changes, the oud player was stretched in turn – turning in a decent language-leaping solo on a blues vamp, and breaking out into banjo-like strumming over the closing New Orleans hoe-down.
Throughout, the two men overflowed with mutual respect, repeatedly hailing each other “brother”. The result of just three days rehearsals, there were rough edges to this embryonic encounter, but during their most empathetic exchanges, one is left hoping this music is not forgotten, and Marsalis and Shamma find the chance to record these merry musical compromises together.