Pulitzer Prize®-winning composer/trumpet player Wynton Marsalis has kept himself rather busy in the past couple of years or so with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, composing and performing a variety of works with that collective. As busy as all of that kept him it clearly was not enough to keep him from working on some other material in the process. One of those compositions, Blues Symphony (Symphony No. 2) was performed live in 2019 by none other than the famed Philadelphia Orchestra. Considered one of the “Big Five” American orchestras, the organization recorded its performance of Marsalis’ 64-minute opus at its “home,” in the Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. The composition itself serves as one of this live recording’s positives. It will be discussed shortly. The group’s performance of the opus adds to the recording’s appeal and will be discussed a little later. The recording’s production rounds out its most important elements and will also be discussed later. Each item noted here is important in its own way to the whole of the recording. All things considered, they make this presentation one more of this year’s best new live CD recordings.
The Philadelphia Orchestra’s live performance of Wynton Marsalis’ Blues Symphony (Symphony No. 2) is a presentation that every jazz fan will enjoy. That is due in part to the composition itself. According to information provided about the opus, it uses music to tell the story of America through not just jazz but the blues, too. Beginning at its first movement, ‘Born in Hope,’ the seven-movement takes audiences through the nation’s revolutionary period, the rise of jazz in New Orleans, the so-called “Great Migration,” and to modern times. While the composition is Marsalis’ own work, this is not the first time that Marsalis has taken part in an opus that tells a story. During his time with the JLCO, Marsalis has also participated in works that tell the story of the 50s, the story of Dante’s timeless literary work, the Divine Comedy, and even of the Kansas City Jayhawks basketball team. So this musical work is really old hat for Marsalis, so to speak. To that end, the blending of the music and history (including musical history) here creates a firm foundation for the recording’s presentation. It is just one part of what makes the recording successful. The group’s performance of the composition builds on that foundation, adding even more appeal to the presentation.
The Philadelphia Orchestra’s performance of Blues Symphony (Symphony No. 2) is an important part of the presentation because of its role in the recording’s general effect. The collective brings out so expertly, the influences of musicians, composers and sounds from so many other genres throughout. Case in point is the performance of ‘Swimming in Sorrow,’ the composition’s second movement. The movement in question clearly exhibits influences of George and Ira Gershwin. Ther are certain clarinet runs that immediately conjure thoughts of the Gershwin brothers’ timeless composition, ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’ At other points in the 13-minute-plus song, the use of the trombone and other horns creates a sound and stylistic approach that is comparable to music from the brothers’ equally timeless work, Porgy and Bess. At yet other points, comparisons to An American in Paris are just as possible. What is important to note here is that for all of the noted influence, the group still successfully and expertly interprets the composition and gives it its own identity. The transitions between the movement’s various sections are fluid, and ensure audiences engagement and entertainment in their own right. The dynamic control that he musicians exhibit is just as powerful.
On a completely opposite note, ‘Danzon y Mambo, Choro y Samba’ shows the importance of the group’s performance in its own right. The organization so expertly blends elements of Afro-Latin and big band for this work. The two are polar opposites but still manage to work so well together here. The gentle, flowing string arrangement here crates beautiful harmonies alongside the flute in the opening bars. As the song progresses, that blending of cultures and influences remains just as stable, neither side overpowering the other. That is another tribute to the expert performance of all involved. The musicians’ ability to interweave everything together here gives the song its own unique identity separate from anything else in the record. It also continues to show what makes the collective’s performance so enjoyable and important to the record.
‘Southwestern Shakedown’ is yet another example of the importance of the performances presented throughout the recording. The bluesy overtones that run throughout the performance are just as audible here as in any other point in the concert. At the same time, the subtle use of the wood block and strings to create that “cowboy sound” is just enough to help give this song its own original sound and identity. Interestingly enough, the Gershwin influence is just as evident here as in other points in the record. The way in which the group blends the influences here makes for its own unique presence and performance. When this performance is considered along with all of the others in the concert, the whole makes clear the importance of this element. It makes for that much more appeal to the overall presentation and is still not the last of the recording’s most important elements. The concert’s production rounds out its most important elements.
The production of this concert recording is important to address because it is, again, a live concert recording. It is clear in listening through this concert, that those responsible for the show’s production did their jobs just as expertly as the performers. The sound balance was near perfect throughout. The airy echo of the instruments is just subtle enough to ensure audiences know that hey are listening to a live recording without allowing the sound to be too airy (and yes, that does happen on recordings, believe it or not. It is rare, but it happens.) Meanwhile, the handling of the balance of the instruments themselves is just as impressive. The instruments compliment each other throughout thanks again to the work put in on site and in post production. Keeping these aspects in mind, the recording’s production proves just as important to its presentation as the approach to the composition and the performance thereof. When all three elements are considered together, they make the recording in whole another enjoyable offering from Wynton Marsalis and another of this year’s top new live CD recordings.
The Philadelphia Orchestra’s performance of Wynton Marsalis’ opus, Blues Symphony (Symphony No. 2) is an impressive new addition to this year’s field of new live CD recordings. It is a presentation that Marsalis’ fans and jazz fans in general will enjoy. That is proven in part through the approach to the composition. The approach in question is a musical story of America’s history and culture. That includes the nation’s musical culture. The orchestra’s performance of the composition adds its own layer of appeal to the presentation. That is because of its ability to so expertly interpret the symphony’s dynamics, notations, and general effect. The recording’s production brings everything full circle and completes the recording’s presentation. It ensures the recording’s audio enhances the listening experience, too. Each item noted is important in its own way to the whole of the recording. All things considered, they make the recording another successful offering from Marsalis and one of the year’s top new live CDs.
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