Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Wynton Marsalis' Musical Masterworks

Wynton Marsalis may at times be a figure of controversy but there can be little doubt he is one of the few performers in jazz today that members of the general public would recognize his name. Still relatively young, he had a performing and recording career that extends back 30 years, He has in this time distinguished himself as a virtuoso of great technique and imagination as well as a composer. Like one of his musical inspirations, he is not simply beyond categories but established himself not simply in the world of jazz but also Western classical music.

MasterworksJazz has just issued a two-disc compilation The Music of America that emphasizes as much the rich legacy of his composing as it does his playing. In the liner booklet, Greg Thomas states that Wynton’s “achievement as a composer for large and small groups has not been given due consideration by so-called serious music critics.” This anthology in part would serve to display that and also perhaps answer another question raised by Thomas, “Who has the depth to plumb the entire American jazz tradition as if its all good and new, and then connect it with music from Africa, Spain, France as well as the spicy flavors of the Mediterranean?” Thomas’ last question does ignore Wynton’s dismissal at times of significant parts of the American jazz tradition which is one reason he has been a controversial figure. If Marsalis’ approach has been a classicist towards the jazz tradition, it has been one of distilling from the past to create fresh and vibrant works.

Marsalis himself has self-curated this collection of 24 tracks from a variety of compositions and recordings with over 2 1/2 hours of music. Several of the selections including the opening Jazz: 6 1/2 Syncopated Movements: Express Crossing (Astride Iron Horses), evoke the romance of trains (a theme found in several Ellington numbers) with spirited playing (nice use of mutes in the trumpets. Jazz: 6 1/2 Syncopated Movements: “D” in the Key of "F" (Now the Blues), also displays Ellington’s inspiration in how the performance builds around Wes Anderson’s alto sax (whose playing suggests Johnny Hodges). These selections along with the driving swing of Jump Start - The Mastery of Melancholy: Jump, a feature for the great Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison, are from Jump Start & Jazz, a recording that will likely garner my future attention. More of Marsalis’ evocation of trains can be heard on a couple selections from the album Big Train, with the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra (JALC Orchestra).

The full range of Marsalis’ compositions is evidenced by Go, Possum, Go, a brief banjo-fiddle duet between Mark O’Connor and Mark Schatz that suggests old-time strong bands with a modern sensibility, his string quartet At the Octoroon Balls - String Quartet No. 1 *: Hellbound Highball, while The Fiddler’s March from A Fiddler’s Tale Suite, brings Marsalis together with the Chamber Society of Lincoln Center with Marsalis playing in the vein of a concert trumpeter, Also fascinating is the two movements (one edited) from All Rise, with the use of a choir and LA Philharmonic in addition to the JALC Orchestra and transitions from orchestral to improvised big band segments.

This hopefully provides some idea of the breadth and depth of the oeuvre of Wynton Marsalis compiled here. The performances in The Music of America; Wynton Marsalis, transcends genres and musical categories. The sampling here substantiates Marsalis’ significant and substantial achievements.

My review copy was provided by a publicist. Here is Wynton and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

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