…was the title of Duke Ellington’s now legendary song in 1931, from which a new genre of jazz borrowed its name. Perpetually renewing itself, no matter where it was played from New Orleans in the South to Chicago in the North, Swing was there to stay. Big Bands were formed in every major American city; their sound, brassy and moody, relied firmly on the rhythmic drive of drums, double bass and piano, and featured trumpets, trombones, clarinets and an assortment of saxophones. A distinctive emphasis on the weaker pulse, or off-beat, of the music created that unmatched dance beat which made Swing jazz equally appealing to a listening audience and to people wanting to dance. But then, who could resist when Glenn Miller led the band, or Benny Goodman played the clarinet solos, or the seductive voice of Billie Holiday improvised over the melody?

Wynton Marsalis © Janusz Kawa
Wynton Marsalis
© Janusz Kawa

With resourceful initiative, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra invited a Big Band, the Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra with its leader, Wynton Marsalis to join forces for a week, and in this concert, the delighted audience quickly realised that ‘all you gotta do is swing’ to have a great night out. It seldom happens that in the Sydney Opera House: Concert Hall no empty seats can be seen. On this occasion, even the choir stalls were at full capacity, and all standing tickets were sold.

In the first half of the concert, the SSO performed two jazz-infused works, starting with Fancy Free, Leonard Bernstein’s ballet music, telling the story of three sailors on short leave on land, hoping for a good time. Dramatic contrasts form an organic part of the rich compositional output of the composer: Bernstein had just finished composing his first, large-scale symphony, relating the anguish and lamentation of the prophet Jeremiah in 1942, when the idea of an all-American ballet captured his mind. Inspired by Jerome Robbins (who later contributed the choreography to West Side Story), Fancy Free was created and it was a rare chance for the Sydney audience to hear this very early work. The Chief Conductor of the SSO, David Robertson, led his well-prepared orchestra with reliable self-assuredness but perhaps not quite with the same sense of humour and vitality that shines through the composer’s own recording. This was a correct reading by an orchestra firmly grounded in traditional repertoire, sounding tempted but not quite seduced by the sway of boogie-woogie.

For the second work of the programme, the strings and wood-wind players left the stage for the performance of Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue and Riffs for clarinet and jazz ensemble. The brass and percussion players (with a piano and a double bass) were now supported by Marcus Printup on trumpet and the renowned Ali Jackson on drums from the JLCO. The jazz elements were considerably stronger here; after all, the score was commissioned by Woody Herman back in 1949. The solo part was played with solid technique by the SSO’s Associate Principal Clarinet, Francesco Celata, whose confidence obviously benefited from having performed the work several times before.

With the members of JLCO embedded in the middle of the SSO, right in front of the conductor, there were over one hundred musicians on stage for the performance of Swing Symphony by Wynton Marsalis. This composition truly celebrated the fusion of jazz elements and the sound of a classical orchestra. The composer himself came in with the rest of the musicians and sat modestly in the appropriate place for a trumpeter, in the back row of his band. One may have missed his presence altogether until his enormously virtuosic solo halfway through the composition, incontrovertibly marking his place among the greatest jazz trumpeters.

Swing Symphony is a massive, seven movement composition lasting well over an hour; a sonic encyclopaedia of Swing. Each movement represents a different stage in the evolution of Swing, progressing chronologically from the 1920’s to today. With plentiful references to seminal jazz compositions, it can be read as a ‘who’s who’ by the initiated. These allusions, recognised or not, celebrate some of the greatest moments in jazz history.

The famed freedom of jazz rhythm can work for such a large ensemble only with discipline, and the performance was held together firmly by Robertson. As can be expected, there was an abundance of instrumental solos played by members of both participating orchestras, perhaps the most impressive of them performed by the whole double bass section of the SSO. Marsalis wrote this part with the mighty basses of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in mind, who premiered the work in 2010. In the Saturday concert, the SSO basses played with great unity, a beautiful tone, and solid intonation, matching their unusual challenge with professional excellence.