I’ve never been a big fan of Wynton Marsalis or his approach to music. But he’s probably more talented than a lot of his pious views about music would indicate. If he – or his handlers – would just shut up and let the music speak for itself, maybe the music might be more interesting.
Then again, maybe not. Too much of Marsalis’s music is just too derivative. This is fine if you like any of the jazz legends he’s so relentlessly copping from. But, this day in age, if you want the Miles Davis Quintet of the sixties or the Duke Ellington Orchestra of the thirties, you can buy it or download it all easily enough.
The point is you don’t need an imitation. The real thing’s easy to get.
After more than three decades as a leader, the one-time new hope of jazz has done little more than cop several prestigious industry awards. He’s written neither one standard nor one hit. And when has anyone swooned over anything he’s done? Certainly, no one is likely to agree on one great Wynton Marsalis album or even one significant Wynton Marsalis phase. That’s probably because there never really was one of either.
I like listening to Wynton Marsalis. I just don’t often respect where he comes from. My tastes lean toward Wynton’s earlier records - Hot House Flowers (Columbia, 1984), Black Codes (From The Underground) (Columbia, 1985), J Mood (Columbia, 1986) and, most of all, Thick in the South (Columbia, 1991) - when the trumpeter was more concerned with making a name for himself, rather than imposing his views on the music (which he was still doing to a slightly lesser degree, even then).
Some of his classical recordings from this period are even better examples of his playing and his performing technique – and that might have something more to do with the rebellious student learning his place in music (especially one who has never achieved any of the greatness of the work he’s covered).
Then I heard his tremendously invigorating and inviting tribute to post-Katrina New Orleans, Congo Square (2008), with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and African drum master Yacub Addy and I had to reconsider some of my own too-strongly held beliefs about Wynton Marsalis.
Congo Square, which has never been issued on CD but rather as a live performance DVD recorded at the Montreal Jazz Festival, was a real eye opener and an ear opener. It was something new and different and something very few people would have thought Wynton Marsalis capable of doing.
It is very much worth seeing – like a great jazz theatre piece – so it may explain why, sadly, it has not yet appeared on CD. It’s a magnificent performance and Marsalis himself seems happy enough to let Addy and the exceptionally talented JALC soloists take the spotlight – much like the great bandleaders of yore did before.
This leads me to recommend very highly the bracing listening experience that is Vitora Suite, a 12-part program Wynton Marsalis composed in tribute to the Vitoria-Gasteiz Jazz Festival, the city of Vitoria-Gasteiz in Spain and the culture of the northern Basque Country of Spain. While he was asked to compose a single blues for the festival, Marsalis responded with these 12 pieces, a structure inspired by the 12 measures of the blues.
A promotional video for Vitoria Suite using the suite’s third movement, the jaunty “Jason And Jasone,” featuring Victor Gardner, Chris Crenshaw and Eliot Mason on trombones and Victor Goines on clarinet.
Marsalis uses the impulse of the blues as a foundation to jointly explore the music of two worlds and two cultures: the jazz and blues of North America and the indigenous Basque music and flamenco of Spain. Granted, there’s a lot of cultural territory in between them, such as the whole of Africa, the Caribbean, and South America, but Marsalis shows how much the two locations have common, musically if not geographically. Wynton notes that, “As outsiders, it’s not possible for us to play this music in the same way that a Spanish musician would, so instead I’ve tried to take elements of the music of the region and translate that into the sound of jazz.”
While composition has never been Wynton Marsalis’s strong suit, several of these pieces stand out more than his music ever has before. That’s probably due to some gorgeously varied phrasing he provides to his orchestra. It’s still mostly Ellingtonian. But the Spanish inflections into the rhythm section provide a refreshing angle of exotica recalling Morton Gould's classic orchestral presentations of Ernesto Lecuona's compositions that is well worth hearing and bears repeated investigation.
The 90-minute program, which expands luxuriously over two discs, is dramatically assembled to feature the JALC’s star performers in some remarkably swinging features (Marcus Printup, Vincent Gardner, Victor Goines, Ryan Kisor, Ted Nash, Sherman Irby and Dan Nimmer) and Wynton Marsalis (“Blood Cry,” “Iñaki’s Decision” and “Mendizorrotza Swing”) as well as such guests as Paco de Lucia (“Buleria El Portalón,” “Deep Blue”), Chano Dominguez, Israel Suarez, Tomas Moreno and Blas Cordoba.
While the whole program sounds good from start to finish, stand-out tracks include “Jason And Jasone,” “Buleria El Portalón,” “Iñaki’s Decision,” “Dato Street Fiesta” and “Mendizorrotza Swing.”
Vitoria Suite affirms that there just might be some greatness in Wynton Marsalis after all.