The stars of this show, part of the Barbican’s season of collaborations with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, were the 60-odd singers of the Abyssinian Mass choir. And what a joyful noise they made, as soloists and en masse, giving this exceedingly long and picaresque suite some of the energy you hear in churches and halls where God is praised with free-spirited, non-stop singing and hollering.
Conducted by the charismatic Damien Sneed, the choir’s skill and unselfconscious joy communicated directly to a packed hall, with a sound infectious enough to make the most agnostic listeners temporarily wish they were believers.
As a composer, Wynton Marsalis is a miniaturist who has been given the keys to the sculpture studio. The Abyssinian Mass, written to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York, showed Marsalis’s musical direction at its best, its worst, and all points in between.
The composition veered between smart reinvention, respectful homage and pastiche, which too often resulted in neo-classical gumbo. (Charles Mingus used to make this kind of instant jazz-history collage work beautifully, but from the ground up, with unique collaborators who grew up inside that history.)
Marsalis and band showed a finely tuned command of the mid-century jazz big-band sound, with gorgeous woodwind and Ellingtonian touches in the vocalised brass – as befits a serious jazz-repertory orchestra.
Among the stars of JLCO were Scots baritone sax hero Joe Temperley and an outrageously good trombone section: Vincent Gardner, Elliot Mason and Christopher Crenshaw.
But the most compelling moments belonged to the choir and soloists, whose ecstatic reading of the Mass elevated Marsalis’s riffs to the high heavens.