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Let's Talk About Wynton Marsalis
Midnight Blues Standard Time Vol. 5
The Party's Over You're Blase It Never Entered My Mind
Every jazz lover owes Wynton Marsalis a debt. He pulled jazz out of an era of frivolous so-called innovation, head games, hack work and brainless fusion by reminding us all that doing something well is as important to the life of an art form as doing something new. He is creating a body of work that will rival that of any major American musician in any style. He has already become the 1st jazz composer to win the Pulitzer Prize, and before he’s through his stature as a composer will rival Gershwin or even the Great God Ellington. In my next few columns, I’ll try to cover the high points of this emerging giant’s prodigious output. Let’s start with the first five volumes of his Standard Time series.
During his early period (Wynton made his extraordinary debut recording at age 19) Marsalis’ sound was clearly derived from a deep study of Miles Davis. By the mid ‘80’s, he’d locked in a style distinctly his own. His complete control of all ranges of the horn and incisive understanding of the history of jazz enriched his playing immeasurably. The range of feeling in Wynton’s music has reflected his continuous growth as a person.
In the Standard Time series, the evolution of Marsalis’ sound is shown against the background of Jazz’ basic repertoire. Vol.’s 1,2,and 3 all consist of tunes that trace the history of that repertoire from the blues and New Orleans dance music of Louis Armstrong, King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton through the refinements of George Gershwin and Duke Ellington, and the angular singularity of Thelonious Monk. Props are given to the Broadway and pop compositions of men like Hoagy Carmichal and the Rogers/Hammerstein/Hart, and Van Heusen/Kahn teams. Each also features a couple of Mr. Marsalis’ own compositions. That his own tunes fit seamlessly in such august company is a tribute to the skill of their composer.
VOL. 1 is a quartet with the great Marsalis touring band of the late ’80’s. Marcus Roberts, the pianist here has the same encyclopedic knowledge of Jazz’ musical literature and the technical chops to play the bejeezis out of all of it. He is a hot-handed foil for the young firebrand Marsalis’ sometimes-surprising improvisations. The ensemble sound is elegant and thoroughly integrated. The program slides from bop standard “Cherokee” to Ellington standard “Caravan” to pop standard “April in Paris.” It is the first of the trumpeter’s records to reflect the painstaking maturity that has become the hallmark of his playing since.
VOL.2: Intimacy Calling- One again features Roberts ever-evolving piano mastery, and touring partners Reginald Veal or Robert Hurst on bass and Herlin Riley or Jeff Watts on drums. Silky smooth tenorman Todd Williams and dark toned altoist Wes Anderson are each added to a cut, enriching an already fecund ensemble. Wynton always avoids predictability in his note choice and timing, without ever falling into eccentricity. His idiosyncrasies reinvigorate these tunes. The set has a little more of a be-bop feel than any of the others in this series and the bigger groups presage the exquisite septets and sextets that Marsalis put together in the ‘90’s.
VOL.3: Resolution of Romance-Veal and Riley remain in the rhythm section here, but Wynton’s dad replaces Roberts on piano. Ellis Marsalis, besides being progenitor of the formidable jazz clan including Branford, Delfayo and Jason, has been New Orleans’ hometown jazz pianist of choice for decades. Wynton sounds a little hesitant to take a lot of harmonic chances with dad around, so this whole set (17 standards and 3 originals, including an exultant tribute to King Oliver) stays a tad more straightlaced and melodic than the others. As on all these CDs, Wynton’s burnished, smoky tone is to die for. Ballads turn to sweet creamery butter under his delicate touch.
VOL.4-Volume four, Wynton’s long awaited tribute to Thelonious Monk was released only this past summer, long after Vol. 5. (Which isn’t as weird as it sounds since Vol.3 came out before Vol. 2). I’ll review it in a later installment of this series.
VOL.5: The Midnight Blues-Ahhh yes, Standard Volume 5. On this disc Wynton’s recent quartet (Veal on bass, drummer Lewis Nash, and lucid and lyrical Eric Reed on piano) is integrated into a large lush string section. Jazz w/strings records rarely work. The few that succeed (Charlie Parker and Ben Webster’s attempts, for example) usually lay a soloist over a string choir that sweetens the sound by adding a romantic backdrop. On those recordings, the strings are there to take the edge off, to make the jazz more like pop music. But Wynton uses strings like Al Green uses a church choir: the strings make these tunes swing. That ain’t easy with ballads, but Wynton pulls it off.
On some numbers the string section becomes a chorus, answering the soloist, like the reeds in an Ellington arrangement. In others they are punctuation or spice, adding a twist to a melody or solo, or piquancy to a phrase.
Wynton is also one of the planet’s finest classical musicians. So, it’s no surprise that the setting for “Midnight Blues”, the eleven minute original composition that ends this disc elevates the whole enterprise to a higher level. The cut develops with aching deliberation, the passion simmers low, and the tempo is teasingly slow. There are echoes of Stravinsky in the string arrangement. Above it all Marsalis’ trumpet sings a solo in the voice of an opera diva. Wynton’s horn sound is stunning in its vocal quality. It is a soprano solo worthy of Maria Callas or Jessye Norman. Don’t get the wrong idea. This is a jazz record. The sense of swing is errorless. The jazz rhythm section is fully in charge here. But the strings and jazz musicians are totally integrated in order to produce a refined romantic sound. This is the background music for a long steamy evening. I hope you’re not alone when you hear it.