THE DOZENS: EARLY VINTAGE WYNTON MARSALIS by Ted Gioia

Wynton Marsalis may be the most frequently discussed musician in jazz, but also among the least well understood. Whenever his name comes up in jazz circles, the focus of discussion shifts (within about ten seconds) to gripes about the politics of jazz. And sometimes it doesn’t even take ten seconds.

As a result, fans rarely encounter intelligent commentary about Wynton’s body of work as a musician. (There are a few exceptions: see, for example, Ethan Iverson’s writings here.) In most instances, Marsalis’s name serves as a type of Rorschach test for your interlocutors, revealing a lot about their personal obsessions or grievances, but telling you almost nothing about the fifty or so recordings the trumpeter has made to date.

And if you make the mistake of mentioning the names “Wynton Marsalis” and “Stanley Crouch” in the same sentence, your rafters will shake and the floor will rumble. Your talking partners will make sure that no more music is discussed for the rest of the evening. A sub-committee will be established to write up a list of demands for presentation at the offices of JALC in the morning.

But what do we make of the music? How important are CDs such as Black Codes (From the Underground), J Mood, Live at Blues Alley, Blood on the Fields, The Majesty of the Blues, In This House, On This Morning, the Standard Time series, the many live recordings, the multipart Soul Gestures in Southern Blue and others? Here we encounter the essence of Wynton Marsalis’s contributions to the jazz idiom, yet now your talking partners have little to say beyond the most vapid generalizations. Let me serve it to you straight: if you haven’t listened carefully to this body of work, your opinion about the trumpeter is not worth much.

With the hope of turning discussions about Marsalis away from rants about jazz politics and into a more fruitful conversation about the music itself, I offer below my perspective on twelve performances from the first decade-and-a-half of his recording career. All of this music was made before Marsalis turned thirty-five. This is early vintage Wynton at his best, and thus the proper place to begin any appraisal of his contributions to jazz music. They take us from his period of apprenticeship with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messenger to his Pulitzer Prize-winning composition Blood on the Fields.

Let the gripes begin. I can already hear my email box sizzling in the background—because people love to enlist in the Jazz Wars. But before you present our web site with your personal list of grievances against the New York Jazz Military-Industrial Power Structure, at least do yourself the favor of listening to some of this music.


Art Blakey (featuring Wynton Marsalis): How Deep Is the Ocean?

Track

How Deep Is the Ocean?

Group

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers

CD

Straight Ahead (Concord 4168)

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Musicians:

Art Blakey (drums), Wynton Marsalis (trumpet), James Williams (piano), Charles Fambrough (bass).

Composed by Irving Berlin

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Recorded: Keystone Korner, San Francisco, June 1981

Albumcoverablakeysahead

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

I still remember the intense buzz when Art Blakey brought this band to San Francisco's Keystone Korner. The jazz cognoscenti were flocking to the club, and I heard them proclaiming: "I'm going to see Wynton." Not, "I'm going to hear Art Blakey." Or: "I'm going to check out the Jazz Messengers." Marsalis may have been a sideman and only 19 years old, and he had yet to release his first CD as a leader . . . but already word of mouth was spreading like a wildfire.

Marsalis did not disappoint, as this track will make clear. Wynton himself has sometimes made dismissive comments about his early work, but I still get jazzed every time I listen to his performance of "How Deep Is the Ocean?" In an era in which most trumpeters preferred to play fast rather than clean, with intensity rather than control, Wynton showed you could have it all. His sound is gorgeous on the slow, rubato opening, but even when the tempo accelerates and he starts dishing out fast, curlicue runs, he still gets that big, burnished tone. There are a few rough moments, for example when Marsalis and pianist James Williams appear to clash in their choice of a chord, but even this miscue adds to the sense of spontaneity of this live performance.

This period in Marsalis's career was almost over before it began. He was soon going beyond Brownie and Navarro, ready to assimilate Miles and Ornette, and then launch into his own Wynton-esque bag. But even if Marsalis had retired after his stint with Blakey, he would deserve consideration as one of the finest hard-bop trumpeters on the strength of performances such as this one.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Wynton Marsalis: Sister Cheryl

Track

Sister Cheryl

Artist

Wynton Marsalis (trumpet)

CD

Wynton Marsalis (Columbia 468708)

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Musicians:

Wynton Marsalis (trumpet), Branford Marsalis (soprano sax), Herbie Hancock (piano), Ron Carter (bass), Tony Williams (drums).

Composed by Tony Williams

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Recorded: July 1981

Albumcoverwyntonmarsaliswm

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

Generally when the drummer contributes a composition to the date, it comes dressed in meager threads—a few chords stitched together, with only enough substance to support a percussion solo. But on Wynton Marsalis's debut date as a leader, Tony Williams offers up a great jam tune, his medium-tempo "Sister Cheryl." Wynton takes the lead solo, and tosses out short, choppy phrases that snap and pop—all with that big and beautiful 'early Marsalis' tone. This section alone would earn high marks for the track. But brother Branford offers a very smart soprano solo. He also starts with little phrases, but they get longer and more polytonal in the second eight bars, and before closing out the chorus, Branford is dancing with long loping lines. I hated to hear this solo end—if you listen closely you can hear me begging my CD player to give the saxophonist another chorus. I guess I should be content with seven-and-a-half minutes of "Sister Cheryl"; but I can't help asking: "Cheryl, are there any more at home like you?"

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Wynton Marsalis: Hesitation (Live 1982)

Track

Hesitation

Artist

Wynton Marsalis (trumpet)

CD

Jazz at the Opera House (Columbia 38430)

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Musicians:

Wynton Marsalis (trumpet), Wayne Shorter (soprano sax), Charlie Haden (bass), Tony Williams (drums), Herbie Hancock (piano).

Composed by Wynton Marsalis

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Recorded: San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, February 22, 1982

Albumcoverjazzattheoperahouse

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

I was in attendance when this track was recorded, sitting in the second-to-last row—the best I could afford on my tight student budget. But even up in the rafters, I could still feel the creative tension engendered by this dramatic collaboration between the 20-year-old trumpeter and the legends of the older generation. Some day you too might enjoy this music—but right now the geniuses at Sony are "protecting their catalog" by making this track unavailable on CD or download.

"Hesitation" had been the most intriguing composition on Marsalis's debut album as a leader (released shortly before this concert), and generated excitement among those who anticipated that this young artist would "go beyond Miles and Ornette." Here he is helped along by former collaborators of Davis and Coleman, and the slippery melody line comes straight out of the harmolodic playbook. The chords are just "I Got Rhythm" changes, but the aesthetic sensibility here pushes the soloists to the far edges of tonality. Marsalis is brash and bold and full of ideas. Putting Haden into the mix works beautifully, and by the time Mr. Shorter steps up for his solo, he is ready to make a big statement of his own. Herbie Hancock is omitted from the personnel listing on the sleeve for this track, but he does offer a few comping chords before laying out—he must have realized that no piano is necessary here, and would even spoil much of the fun.

This performance still stands out as a good indicator of what Wynton might have done if he had seen himself as a an acolyte in the temple of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry. The path not taken . . . but a heck of an interesting detour.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Wynton Marsalis: Concerto in E-flat Major for Trumpet and Orchestra by Joseph Haydn (first movement)

Track

Concerto in E-flat Major for Trumpet and Orchestra (first movement)

Artist

Wynton Marsalis (trumpet)

CD

Haydn, L. Mozart, Hummel: Trumpet Concertos (Columbia Masterworks)

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Musicians:

Wynton Marsalis (trumpet),

National Philharmonic Orchestra (orchestra), Raymod Leppard (conductor)

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Composed by Joseph Haydn

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Recorded: CD released in 1983

Albumcoverwmarsalistrumpetconcertos

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

No, it's not jazz—duh!—but anyone who wants to come to grips with the phenomenon of Wynton Marsalis needs to hear his classical side, and there is no better place to start than his debut classical album, made when the trumpeter was 20. It would earn him a Grammy in 1983, and gain him a following among a wide audience who had never come within 500 feet of a jazz club. In particular, listen to the cadenza toward the conclusion of the first movement of the Haydn concerto. It's not just the technical control, which admittedly can blind you to everything else, but even more the freedom of his phrasing. The cadenza goes beyond the bounds of the idiom, yet also seems perfectly appropriate. I don't think anyone else on the planet could have pulled this off back then, or today for that matter. I once took some students through this movement, then had them listen to the same cadenza as played by the esteemed Maurice André. I think this comparison may have opened up their ears to Marsalis's importance even more than any "mere" jazz recording would have done.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Wynton Marsalis: Chambers of Tain

Track

Chambers of Tain

Artist

Wynton Marsalis (trumpet)

CD

Black Codes (From the Underground) (Columbia CK 40009)

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Musicians:

Wynton Marsalis (trumpet), Branford Marsalis (tenor sax), Kenny Kirkland (piano), Charnett Moffett (bass), Jeff "Tain" Watts (drums).

Composed by Kenny Kirkland

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Recorded: RCA Studio, New York, January 7-11, 14, 1985

Albumcoverwyntonmbcu

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

My CD copy of this release does not provide any composer information, or list the musicians, or even tell you the state or country where the music was recorded. (Although it does note the microphones employed: Neuman: U-67, KM-84, T170i; AKG: 414EB-P48, 451.) But you can't keep a band this good a secret, no matter how hard the folks at Sony / Columbia work to hide their light under a bushel. When these unknown musicians first released the mystery track on the Black Codes (From the Underground) LP, back in the mid-1980s, a host of cryptographers worked to decipher the discographical information from a cypher supposedly hidden in Stanley Crouch's liner notes. But seasoned jazz fans didn't need to break the Black Code—they just listened to this sizzling hot performance for a few seconds before bowing in deference to Wynton Marsalis, his brother Branford, and the stellar rhythm section of Kenny Kirkland, Jeff 'Tain' Watts and Charnett Moffett. In all honesty, this record shook people up when it first came out, and still amazes today. Wynton puts it all together in his solo—great ideas, peerless virtuosity, hard-edged swing. And the whole band clicks, both on the labyrinthine head and during the fast-paced modally-oriented solos. A classic performance from the mid-1980s.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Wynton Marsalis: J Mood

Track

J Mood

Artist

Wynton Marsalis (trumpet)

CD

J Mood (Sony / Columbia 40308)

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Musicians:

Wynton Marsalis (trumpet), Marcus Roberts (piano), Robert Hurst (bass), Jeff "Tain" Watts (drums).

Composed by Wynton Marsalis

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Recorded: New York, Dec 17-20, 1985

Albumcoverwyntonmarsalis-jmood

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

Even as a teenager, Wynton Marsalis dazzled audiences with the sureness of his technique and the power and beauty of his tone. But the suppleness and variety of his rhythmic phrasing only came in his early twenties. By the age of 24—when he recorded J Mood—the young trumpeter was pushing beyond the conventional boundaries of hard-bop phraseology, slicing and dicing the beat in ways few of his predecessors had attempted. He would continue to push ahead in this vein with a series of releases from the late 1980s, but we can hear an early example of these advanced explorations in this track. The performance begins with a quirky theme—like a Blue Note head with extra beats tossed in hither and thither—before settling into a 12-bar blues, which Marsalis dissects with surgical skill. The rhythm section—which, on its own, must rank as one of the finest trios of the decade—provides a supple cushion for the proceedings.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Wynton Marsalis: A Foggy Day

Track

A Foggy Day

Artist

Wynton Marsalis (trumpet)

CD

Marsalis Standard Time, Vol. 1 (CBS 40461)

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Musicians:

Wynton Marsalis (trumpet), Marcus Roberts (piano), Robert Hurst (bass), Jeff "Tain" Watts (drums).

Composed by George & Ira Gershwin

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Recorded: New York, May 29-30, 1986 and September 24-25, 1986

Albumcoverwmarsalisstandardtime1

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

The opening bars seem to herald a relaxed rendition of an old standard. But thirty seconds into the track, bassist Hurst briefly superimposes a five-beat pulse on the underlying 4/4, and the games begin. Wynton & Co. had been experimenting with odd metrics on the albums leading up to Standard Time, and the band displays here that they could apply these progressive techniques to the traditional repertoire. But the most impressive thing here is the subtlety with which the cross-rhythms are employed. A casual listener might not hear anything out of the ordinary, and put this track on for light background music. Send that tin-eared transgressor to jazz re-education camp forthwith! The combo playing here is happening at a very high level and has earned a place at the forefront of your attention. Marsalis's sidemen challenge him at every step, but the trumpeter stays in total control of the proceedings. Check out the placement of his phrasing against the rhythm section starting at the ninety-second mark and continuing for ten scintillating seconds . . . and then go back and enjoy it again. Just a tiny snippet, but it sounds like a mariachi band joining Monk during the last set at the Five Spot, and each ensemble asserting the primacy of its own conception of time. Then the music settles down again at the top of the form . . . but nothing is ever settled for very long on this performance. This is how you keep the old sentimental songs sounding fresh and unbridled fifty years after they were composed. By the time we get the coda, the band is changing meters so often, even Lovely Rita couldn't keep up with them. Meanwhile, the fog has dissipated and the sun is shining everywhere.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Wynton Marsalis: Knozz-Moe-King

Track

Knozz-Moe-King

Artist

Wynton Marsalis (trumpet)

CD

Live at Blues Alley

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Musicians:

Wynton Marsalis (trumpet), Marcus Roberts (piano), Robert Hurst (bass), Jeff "Tain" Watts (drums).

Composed by Wynton Marsalis

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Recorded: Blues Alley, Washington, DC, December 19-20, 1986

Albumcoverwyntonmarsalisbluesalley

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

The title of the song may demand "No Smoking," but this band is clearly in violation of the city ordinance. In fact, if you are looking for a smokin' Wynton Marsalis performance, this track from the trumpeter's December 1986 engagement at Blues Alley is a good place to start. At age 25, Marsalis was playing with a technical mastery and burning energy that few horn players in the history of this music have ever matched. In a short while, Wynton would take on a more traditional approach, and enter into an Ellingtonian-ish phase of his career that still marks his music today. But there are no signs of that looming change on the Blues Alley date. Marsalis plays fast and hot, with long loping lines that feed off the rhythm section. And what a rhythm section! For sheer unbridled drive, it would be hard to top this combo. The piece is off in modal land, and is quite malleable; but Marsalis and company push it about as far as it will go without breaking. You can check out the other versions for comparison. (This is the longest—and fastest—of the three versions of "Knozz Moe King" from the Blues Alley album.)

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Wynton Marsalis: The Majesty of the Blues (The Puheeman Strut)

Track

The Majesty of the Blues (The Puheeman Strut)

Artist

Wynton Marsalis (trumpet)

CD

The Majesty of the Blues (Columbia 45091)

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Musicians:

Wynton Marsalis (trumpet), Marcus Roberts (piano), Reginald Veal (bass), Wes Anderson (alto sax), Herlin Riley (drums),

Todd Williams (tenor sax)

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Composed by Wynton Marsalis

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Recorded: New York, October 27-28, 1988

Albumcoverwyntonmarsalisthemajestyoftheblues

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

This performance marks a major turning point in the career of Wynton Marsalis. Before this recording, Marsalis was a futurist, working on elaborate polyrhythmics, playing fast and hard, and moving in a post-Miles direction. Then—seemingly overnight—he becomes the grand traditionalist, and shows off a killin' pre-bop sound, built on down-and-dirty textures reminiscent of Bubber Miley and King Oliver.

'What's going on?' as Marvin Gaye might ask. This stylistic shift seemed like a step backward at the time. But was it really? To move from playing discrete notes to undulating sound textures was, circa 1988, a pretty radical step for the most prominent young musician in jazz. Marsalis's solo, unlike anything he had recorded previously (although a harbinger of much to come) is artfully constructed, and took him outside the invariable comparisons with Miles and Brownie, Dizzy and Freddie, and the like. In short, Wynton had changed the rules on us without any warning.

To some degree, a traditionalist bent had already entered the jazz world before this recording, but The Majesty of the Blues took it to a new level. Yet for all that, there is a wicked, modernist undercurrent here. The stately 6/4 meter is played with a panoramic, open pulse, and sounds very up to date. Marcus Roberts is decidedly not trying to channel Earl Hines, and Veal and Riley are collaborating on their own happenin' groove. This is a coronation march for a nightlife diva, a mixture of the majesty (announced in the title) with something grittier and darker, but all steeped in the New Orleans tradition. The chord progression is a blues, but the stretched-out bar lengths give it an unconventional twist. The horn writing is sparse, but with a growling Ellingtonian quality that is quite effective.

All in all, this track represented a stunning turn of events for the artist who had just turned 27 the week before the session. To some degree, the jazz world is still dealing with the aftermath.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Wynton Marsalis: In This House, On This Morning

Track

In This House, On This Morning

Artist

Wynton Marsalis (trumpet)

CD

In This House, On This Morning (Columbia 53220)

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Musicians:

Wynton Marsalis (trumpet), Wycliffe Gordon (trombone), Wes Anderson (alto sax), Todd Williams (tenor sax, alto sax), Eric Reed (piano), Reginald Veal (bass), Herlin Riley (drums), Marion Williams (vocals).

Composed by Wynton Marsalis

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Recorded: New York, May 28-29, 1992 and March 20-21, 1993

Albumcoverwyntonmarsalisinthishouse

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

There are many tempting pigeonholes in which to place this 2-hour work by Mr. Marsalis. You could call it his personal variant on the old Ellington Sacred Concerts. Or you could look it as an apprentice effort pointing toward Marsalis's later Pulitzer Prize-winning composition Blood on the Fields. You might even see this as a historic moment in the institutionalization of jazz. (This was the trumpeter's first commission from Jazz at Lincoln Center.)

Or you could do as I suggest, and actually listen to the music and let it speak to you on its own terms. Of course, it is much more convenient to have a readymade opinion about Wynton that exempts you from actually having to hear his music. But if you put your ears to the test you will encounter many aural moments of high distinction, from that expansive opening motif of "Devotional" (vaguely reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein's "Somewhere") which will return to greet the perspicacious listener from time to time, to the glorious and free-ish trumpet speaking-in-tongues of "Call to Prayer" and the 6/8 cool jazz stylings of "Hymn." And let me call attention (to pick a few more pleasing examples) to the horns that sound like church bells in "Recessional" and Wynton's celebration of his New Orleans roots in his concluding "Pot Blessed Dinner."

The third movement is my favorite. Here Reginald Veal's opening bass solo is raw and meaty, and prepares us for some soothing horn strains that begin setting the tone at the 5-minute mark. This interlude measures how much Marsalis had changed since Blues Alley: much of this writing here is built on long held notes, sweet-and-sour textures that create tension by implication rather than demonstrative excesses. In fact, that is true of this whole composition, where background riffs and rhythmic patterns are given plenty of room to make their point, and soloists wait for the right moment to make a big statement. At times, the piece risks collapsing into pastiche—this is always the dark storm cloud on the horizon in mid-period Marsalis—yet this artist's high seriousness generally keeps him on the high road. His success in this regard is all the more telling when one considers how much "low road" pastiche was circulating in the New York jazz world during this era.

The trumpeter had appeared on more than a dozen releases during the four years leading up to the debut performance In This House, On This Morning at Avery Fisher Hall on May 27, 1992. By releasing so many recordings during this period, Wynton didn't make it easy for his audience—or even jazz critics—to keep up with him. Nor does Columbia make it easy now, by keeping this double-CD out of print (although the music is available as a digital download). But those who spend some time with this work will be rewarded for their efforts.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Wynton Marsalis: Stardust

Track

Stardust

Artist

Wynton Marsalis (trumpet)

CD

Live at the Village Vanguard (Columbia 69876)

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Musicians:

Wynton Marsalis (trumpet), Eric Reed (piano), Ben Wolfe (bass), Herlin Riley (drums).

Composed by Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish

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Recorded: Village Vanguard, New York, December 2-4, 1994

Albumcoverwyntonmarsalisvillagevanguard

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

This much beloved jazz standard has its own deeply ingrained personality, and you tinker with it at your own risk. The verse is as interesting as the main theme, and the whole melody is so well written, it could stand comparison with the finer classical art songs. In other words, you just can't blow on these changes like they were "Blue Moon." Marsalis understands this implicitly, and he lets the mood of the piece inform his solo. His tempo is just a tad faster than your typical ballad, the pace of a lazy stroll. Wynton plays sly cat-and-mouse games with Hoagy Carmichael's melody, hinting at it at some moments, while elsewhere coming up with something novel that still reminds us of the distinctive intervallic leaps of the original. Even when the trumpeter tosses off some high notes that swing triumphantly like the man on the flying trapeze, they still flow naturally from the emotional temperament of the song. This is a very mature performance by the artist, who was 33 at the time of this Village Vanguard session, but played like a seasoned veteran.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Wynton Marsalis: Blood on the Fields

Track

Blood on the Fields

Group

Wynton Marsalis & the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra

CD

Blood on the Fields (Columbia 57694)

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Musicians:

Wynton Marsalis (trumpet), Jon Hendricks (vocals), Cassandra Wilson (vocals), Miles Griffith (vocals), Wes Anderson (alto sax), James Carter (baritone sax, clarinet, bass clarinet), Victor Goines (tenor sax, soprano sax, clarinet, bass clarinet), Robert Stewart (tenor sax), Walter Blanding (soprano sax), Russell Gunn (trumpet), Roger Ingram (trumpet), Marcus Printup (trumpet), Wayne Goodman (trombone), Wycliffe Gordon (trombone, tuba), Ron Westray (trombone), Michael Ward (violin), Eric Reed (piano), Reginald Veal (bass), Herlin Riley (drums).

Composed by Wynton Marsalis

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Recorded: The Grand Hall of the Masonic Grand Lodge, New York, January 22-25, 1995

Albumcoverwyntonbloodonthefields

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Wynton Marsalis has built a career on high ambitions—including (for a start) assimilating the music vocabulary from Haydn to Ornette—but this may be the biggest gambit of them all. The best comparison point here is Duke Ellington's extraordinary Black, Brown & Beige, composed a half-century before Wynton presented his Blood on the Fields to the music world. Like Ellington, Marsalis also tries to pull together history, sociology and lots of dramatic music into a big, big, big composition-- more than twice as long as Ellington's work. It may take the jazz world decades to digest this massive three-hour work -- and with Wynton Marsalis there is a particular problem that people like to talk about his music without giving it the close listening it deserves. But I predict that the Pulitzer committee's controversial decision to select this composition as the first jazz work honored in their long history will eventually look like a very smart move. Who would have thought that the dazzling trumpeter who first made his mark as a teenager hard-bopping in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers would evolve into such a masterful composer? Listen especially to how well he writes for horns. One of the high points of a storied career.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


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