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The Boston Phoenix Too Late to Stop Now

The latest onslaught of music from Wynton

By Jon Garelick

NOVEMBER 8, 1999:  Like many another charming megalomaniac before him, Wynton Marsalis wants it all. At least, that's the impression left by his activities of the last two decades. On his résumé so far: virtuoso trumpet soloist (in both jazz and the core classical repertoire), bandleader, composer (of all manner of jazz pieces in long and short form, including his 1997 Pulitzer-winning jazz "oratorio" Blood on the Fields), artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and pedagogue. Since 1983 he has released 30 albums on Sony as a leader, plus 11 CDs as a featured player on Sony Classical. That includes the current onslaught of product: seven albums released since last February under the moniker "Swinging into the 21st" (with an eighth as a special free disc to fans who collect the others). And on November 23, Sony plans to release a seven-CD set of Marsalis's live early-'90s recordings from New York's Village Vanguard.

This relentless productivity is more than any fan can digest, and at times it's hard not to feel that Wynton wants to crush every last doubter of his talent under an avalanche of musical achievement. Marsalis has always paid his respects to the jazz elders, and he's a great proselytizer for the music of Duke Ellington, who, with the range and breadth of his musical compositions and his general musical deportment, is clearly a major role model for Wynton. But Leonard Bernstein is a closer parallel: the wunderkind who wows the world and feels ill at ease only when he bites off less than he can chew. Bernstein had something of Marsalis's far-reaching ambition -- to write hit Broadway musicals and symphonic works, to direct one of New York's major musical institutions, and occasionally to perform as a virtuoso pianist. Wynton has even directed his own versions of Bernstein's Young People's concerts, with a jazz focus. And Marsalis has taken similar lumps for spreading it all too thin.

As a soloist, Wynton commands more attention on his horn than Lenny ever did at the keyboard. But the broad outlines still fit: like Bernstein, Marsalis is a commissar of culture, pursuing his needs with an evangelical fury. And like Bernstein with classical music, Marsalis wants to bring jazz into the mainstream of American cultural life, to establish the primacy of this much denigrated form.

Of course, how he's done it has long been a subject of controversy, especially since seizing the reins at Lincoln Center. The programs there have been tangled in questions of what is or is not jazz and who counts as a jazz composer ("Even Henry Threadgill says what he's doing isn't jazz," Wynton has been rebuked). Whereas Wynton's forebears, like Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton, took an expansive view, demonstrating how everything can be absorbed into the jazz language, Marsalis has rejected certain "European" tendencies as inappropriate. His own music has often came off as an imitation -- first of Miles, later of Duke -- without creating a language that was specifically his own. As his progeny multiplied and began to define the jazz landscape, Wynton fed the impression that, as critic and radio announcer James Isaacs once put it, if jazz wasn't "dead," it certainly was over. Creating new forms, an ongoing vanguard, was no longer what jazz was about -- it was now about interpretation rather than the creation of original works. It was becoming what we otherwise think of as "classical."

And yet . . . and yet. Love him or hate him, Marsalis is a major jazz composer. Throughout the "Swinging into the 21st" series, you can hear him developing multi-thematic material over long arcs of music, imaginatively exploiting rhythm, dynamics, color, orchestration, architecture. Big Train is a typical example. If you wanted to be uncharitable, you could call it the greatest suite for jazz band that Duke Ellington never wrote. And it's symptomatic that Wynton would write a programmatic piece about trains for series called "Swinging into the 21st."

But as with a lot of Marsalis's music, when you get past the programmatic trappings, and actually listen, the results are rewarding. Yes, there are corny old mimetic devices like hissing-steam brass, dissonant whistles, and choo-choo accelerandos and decelerandos. But the inner workings of Big Train go farther. Here, as in so much of Marsalis's work from the last half of the decade, you can hear how he's taken Ellingtonian devices like the signature "inverted" voicings for brass and reeds and followed their implications. He uses the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra as a laboratory (granted, the kind of luxury not even Duke enjoyed) for stunning coloristic and orchestral effects: high, keening brass and flutes against a low, solitary baritone sax; hocketing brass figures that have bell-like luster and resonance; beautifully deployed "chase" sections that reinforce the pacing and structure of the composition even as they showcase the skills of the soloists. Add to this constantly permutating dance-like rhythmic figures and the blues suffused through everything like rum in a rum cake.

Marsalis's "classical" pieces from "Jumping into the 21st" perhaps establish him even more clearly as sui generis. Igor Sravinsky's chamber piece L'histoire du soldat was his inspiration for The Fiddler's Tale. He follows Stravinsky's instrumentation (trumpet, clarinet, bassoon, trombone, violin, bass, and percussion) mimics Stravinsky's strolling motoric rhythms (especially with the bassoon) and comic instrumental characterizations, and even had Stanley Crouch write a Stravinsky-esque narrative about a fiddler tempted by the Devil. And like Stravinsky, he's given us two recorded versions: the complete work with narrator and an abridged suite version.

On the face of it, you might think, it's not enough that Marsalis has to be Ellington, he has to be Stravinsky, too. But Marsalis applies his own language, his native New Orleans's second-line rhythms and blues licks, to Stravinsky. By the end of the piece, with its sardonic blues shuffle in 4/4, The Fiddler's Tale has become Marsalis's. It's been said that in his Ebony Concerto, Stravinsky studied American jazz and then made a Russian piece out of it. Marsalis has done the inverse.

Marsalis's At the Octoroon Balls: String Quartet No. 1 (performed by the Orion Quartet) is equally adept. Instead of the minuets and adagios, there are folk fiddle ballads tunes of the Ken Burns Civil War variety, but Marsalis develops them with dissonant double stops and harmonics. Four-way pizzicato and knocking percussion on the bodies of the instruments provide swing elsewhere. If I've got any complaint, it's that a nine-minute violin solo (no matter how compelling) is no way to open a string quartet.

Sweet Release and Ghost Story: Two More Ballets by Wynton Marsalis shows the composer swinging, and trying not to -- the first in a ballet written for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and scored for the entire LCJO, the second a quartet score written for a Zhongmei Li ballet. The second movement of Sweet Release, "Church: Renewing Vows," might be some of Marsalis's most exciting music. Wycliffe Gordon's recurring four-note tuba figure, a driving syncopation, unifies a series of melodies and countermelodies, including one for massed plunger-muted brass that's both filthy and delicious. Ghost Story, though less dynamic (Wynton has a hard time turning Japanese), includes beautiful solos for pianist Eric Lewis and saxophonist Ted Nash. Reeltime (written for the movie Rosewood, but never used) shows Wynton providing cinematic atmospherics and songs (including vocal turns by Cassandra Wilson and the great gospel singer Shirley Caesar).

My only reservations about "Swinging into the 21st" regard the true acts of jazz preservation. Mr. Jelly Lord: Standard Time Vol. VI preserves the music of the first great jazz composer -- someone whose music doesn't get much from the major labels these days, to say the least. (In fact, Wynton's investigations of form probably owe as much to Morton as to Ellington.) And Wynton doesn't go for the obvious -- "New Orleans Bump" and "Deep Creek" instead of "King Porter Stomp" or "Wolverine Blues." There are beautiful, idiomatically "correct" details, whether it's Herlin Riley's off-beat cymbal splashes or Michael White re-creating the watery vibrato of George Baquet's clarinet on "Deep Creek." But sometimes, as in "New Orleans Bump," Marsalis's band is almost genteel in comparison to the rough, ragged intensity of Morton's.

Worse, to my mind, is the Marsalis Plays Monk: Standard Time Vol. 4, where Marsalis fills in every ellipsis of this most minimalist of great jazz composers with multi-part horn voicings and juxtaposed melody lines. The point might be to underline the formal integrity of these great pieces, but to my taste it's awfully fussy. As for Monk's humor, on a tune like "Monk's Mood," Wynton underlines it with his own "chuckling" plunger-mute vocalisms on the melody line -- just in case we don't get it.

Perhaps that's my one remaining caveat -- Wynton's own bravura overplaying. When he enters after the opening round of solos on "Thelonious" with a gargantuan nine-bar single-breath blast, you might be tempted to yell back at jazz's only Pulitzer winner, "Dude, relax, you've got the job!"

Getting the music out

Over the phone recently, Wynton Marsalis talked with the Phoenix about how he approached specific pieces as well as the "Swinging into the 21st" project as a whole.

At the Octoroon Balls: String Quartet No. 1. "Since I was in high school, I was a fan of the Beethoven quartets. I would listen to them all the time and study them, check the scores out, read articles on them. So when I had the chance to collaborate with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the first thing I thought of was trying to write a string quartet, and use the things that are in our music. Well, I had to stop listening to Beethoven's music then, because it's on such a high level it will make you not want to write anything. So I started trying to listen to Haydn and Debussy and different people who had written string quartets to see how they solved the problems. Haydn invented the string quartet, so I checked out a lot of his quartets. Then I had to figure out how to appropriate our way of playing and our language. . . . I've never written for strings before. It's a whole different ballgame. I was lucky with the string quartet, the Orion. They worked very hard on the music. They gave me a lot of suggestions of things to do. It was really a learning experience for me."

The Fiddler's Tale. "I was trying to have a dialogue with his [Stravinsky's] music. I have no qualms about that, using the structures, the form that he uses, but I'm putting it into our language. He writes a march, it's 2/4. With mine, I'm making my march in 7/4, a New Orleans march. I have the bassoon playing a lower counter line [he demonstrates by singing and playing piano]. That comes out of the New Orleans tradition. I organize mine like you organize a New Orleans front line. The trombone playing a sliding part, the clarinet playing a higher, obbligato part. The trumpet is playing the melody. I use the violin, too, because in the early music of ragtime, and before that, all the bands had trumpets and violins. I am trying to use both of the traditions: his, what he did, but also combine it with my own.

"We had a lot of discussions before we did this ["Swinging into the 21st"]. A lot of people, my friends, people I've known for years, they said, 'This is a dumb idea.' . . . I think at this time it's very important for me to affirm our -- meaning me and all of the musicians I've been playing with, even the musicians on The Fiddler's Tale, the Orion quartet -- it's important for me and all of us to affirm musicianship, and our belief in being musicians. Because at a certain point, marketing starts to take over: the video, and how somebody looks, and whether they're sexy or not. Nothing wrong with that, that's fine if that's what you're into. But just to say that there are some musicians right now that are dealing with some music. Dealing with swing and the elements that make our music what it is." -- JG

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