This CD, the last by the Wynton Marsalis Septet to feature Marcus Roberts on piano throughout, pivots around the title piece, which is subtitled “The Bittersweet Saga of Sugar Cane and Sweetie Pie.” This work is Wynton’s first extended composition on record. In an introductory monologue peppered with the wry humor and insight that characterize so much of his music, Wynton remarks that the story of the mythic lovers Sugar Cane and Sweetie Pie is about “two people becoming one very delicious slice of spirit, but never losing the things that make them individual.” Sound like a formula for the best sort of jazz swing and improvisation? Indeed it is. The musicians pursue it here, in Wynton’s words, through “the sidetracks and backstreets along which emotion travels.”
|Monologue For Sugar Cane And Sweetie Pie||5:59||Play|
|And The Band Played On||5:23||Play|
|The Jubilee Suite||12:21||Play|
|Sometimes It Goes Like That||7:14||Play|
Music exists for the purpose of giving our humanity audible charisma. As this recording proves, Wynton Marsalis continues to make even more explicit those human vistas of jazz that exemplify its ongoing revitalization. That revitalization calls upon the best of the art and reinterprets it with affection and adventure of the sort that corresponds to the serious listener’s mood for a classic. Marsalis is quite successfully working at a vision in which there is an organic relationship between the power of the jazz pen and the members of his group. And as we repeatedly listen to the title track, we realize that no one has ever achieved their sustained development of a long composition for small band that Marsalis does in this performance of nearly 40 minutes. It is a work so masterful and so perfectly integrated that Marsalis has done himself and his art quite proud. If you want to know what makes his recording an event, play that first.
Yet this musical monument came about as the result of more than a light bulb flashing on in Marsalis’ head. When closely examined, the trumpeter’s career has much in common with Harold Greenberg’s observations about Matisse: “Like any other artist, Matisse worked at first in borrowed styles; but if he appears to have proceeded rather slowly toward the discovery of his own unique self, it was less out of lack of self-confidence than because of very sophisticated scruples about his truth. He had to make sure, before he could move toward independence, that he really felt differently and had different things to say than did those artists whom he admired and by whom he was influenced. He went on doubting himself…and he continued to hesitate long after had had broken with the impressionist canon of the well-made picture. His hesitations were openly confessed – but they had to do with the exceptional mastery of his craft that he finally acquired.”
Marsalis arrived in jazz with both a technical fluidity that had little precedent and an acknowledged authority in European concert music that no jazz musician before him had ever possessed. At the same time, the trumpeter was critical of his own jazz work and of the obstacles to learning how to play jazz. “Coming from New Orleans, he was immersed in the blues tradition, but having grown up during the fusion era, he had no awareness of the importance of the blues to jazz. Though well schooled in harmony, he knew little about how to apply it during an improvisation, and worried over his ability to swing on the level of the art’s masters, living or dead. But he was a man ready to endure the isolation and the feeling of impotence that are inevitable when one chooses to learn formidable amounts of information.
That willingness to learn is what led to this recording. Though he has played well from the beginning of his career, if not always equally well on each one of the five levels of rhythm, melody, harmony, tone, and execution, Marsalis is now in command. He is easily one of the best musicians alive. His position is one that comes not only of hard work but of expansive imagination and ambition. Not content to develop only as a player, he has taken on the challenge of learning as a player, he has taken on the challenge of learning how to lead a band as well as the challenge of understanding human beings in the ways that you must if you are to play music with them. In order to fully realize his vision of the music and to create a context for his players, Marsalis has had to grow into perhaps the most impressive jazz composer of the last 25 years. At this point, his work is not only personal expression, it is a summing up of where we are now.
Where we are is where jazz always goes when it has indulged the cult of the unbridled primitive or given in to commercialism or lost its shirt on writing that runs a pretentious fast last. In such times, musicians with visions of repertoire, composition, and the interaction of a band come ford, almost as though the art itself wills them into existence. This Marsalis recording asserts the inheritance of the ambitions heard earliest in Jelly Roll Morton, that were later picked up by John Kirby’s Sextet, that distinguished the Ellingtonian small units of Stewart, Hodges, and Bigard, that inspired the lyrical and lickety-split arrangements of the early Parker-Gillespie groups, that led to John Lewis’ writing for the Modern Jazz Quartet, that were heard in George Russell’s Sextet, in the best ensembles of Charles Mingus, and on Ornette Coleman’s The Shape Of Jazz To Come. Regardless of differences in style and era, all of those musicians had in common the desire to amalgamate the highest possibilities of improvisation and the grandest achievements of idiomatic writing.
Of his own work in that direction, Marsalis says, “I believe that the highest level of individual achievement in jazz is the development of a distinct personality. But that is only part of what is possible. You can be a great individual, but if you’re not supported, surrounded, and engaged by other distinct personalities, your actual voice won’t be completely heard. To be completely heard and for the sound of jazz to actually speak, you must have a band, for the sound is a common vocabulary that the musicians identify and personalize to such a degree that a person’s individuality becomes an essential element of an indivisible whole. For instance, take gumbo: after a couple of days, you don’t know where the shrimp ends and the sausage begins. That’s what you want in a jazz band – every part helps create a delicious overall texture that couldn’t exist without each element adding to the taste.”
That is a perfect description of what Marsalis and his musicians have brought off. Marsalis has asked his musicians to learn how to play more than one way, to be able to call upon the resources of the music for the sort of comprehensive integration that James P. Johnson predicted when he foresaw the jazz musician of the future having to be able to do with his or her music what practitioners of European concert music do – master everything from the tradition to the most substantial modern material. In performance, Marsalis’ band can be charismatically render such pieces as Jelly Roll Morton’s “The Jungle Blues,” Ellington’s “Where’s The Music?”, Parker’s “Chasing The Bird,” Monk’s “Monk’s Mood,” Coltrane’s “Transition,” and the group’s own original compositions with an authority that brings all of the music together. Their comprehensiveness has been hinted at before but not since the very best of Mingus’ bands have we heard anything close to what Marsalis and his men are doing. A new standard for jazz musicianship has been set and is being presented to audiences and musicians around the world.
None of this could be achieved without the quality of players Marsalis has. He is well aware of this and says of his band, “I consider myself quite blessed to have the opportunity to work and live on the road with these musicians. Most of them I have known since they were in high school, and it’s been a great pleasure for me to observe and participate in their development. Each one has a nickname that captures something of the essence of his personality. Wes Anderson is from Brooklyn and we call him Warm Daddy. That describes his tone on the alto, which is truly a thing of heart and beauty. But it also describes the fact that he is the kind of person people are at ease with almost immediately. They feel they can be themselves in the company of Warm Daddy, even to the point of confiding in him. That’s the kind of soul he has.
“Herlin Riley’s Monicker is Homey because he’s from New Orleans, which makes him every jazz musician’s brother, or Homey. This is also true because he is always trying to create a harmonious musical as well as social environment. When you’re around Homey, you know that everything is going to be done with the best thoughts in mind. He’s an enabler in a very spiritual sense and you can hear that in the way he plays grooves and the way he swings. Like Billy Higgins, he has no prejudices; he comes to swing. His playing has the feeling of an open house where the food is good and the atmosphere relaxes all your troubles away.
“Obviously from Georgia, Wycliffe Gordon is known as Pine Cone, Colonial Cone, or Coupe de Cone. He is the funniest person in the band and in the truest country tradition, he can do things like fix broken doors with little pieces of paper. He also can play any instrument well. I say any instrument because, given a week, he can figure out how to make music on a Western or a non-Western instrument. Once, for instance, I was writing some music for a television show and asked him to see if he could figure out how to play a traditional Japanese instrument that had completely befuddled me. Sure enough, he figured out all of the notes and fingerings as well as an original technique of blowing it in one week’s time. Therefore, we had no choice but to call him Coup de Cone.
“Reginald Veal is simply called Swing Doom. Swing is for his rhythm, and Doom is for the weight of his sound. He understands the most poetic aspects of bass playing and comes to lay down some serious work every night. He has no use for amplifiers and this demands that the band listen more closely and play with more taste. Also from New Orleans, he is the ultimate workman – tireless and in possession of great dignity. That’s why the first tune is dedicated to him. Veal wants only one thing to happen when he gets on the bandstand, which is that the rhythm section come together and put something in the music that allows ultimate creativity to take place. He’s that way in everything. For instance, if you have him on your basketball team, you always have a chance to win because he never quits. And from his choice of colognes, one must conclude that Veal is as considerate of the nose of his fellow man as he is of the need his fellow bandsmen have for well-swung notes.
“Todd Williams is from St. Louis and is known as The Deacon. He plays with tremendous feeling and meaning, just like the most responsible deacon in the church, the one who understands why everybody is there and how to take care of their needs. Whenever there is something impossible to play, and we are all scared to touch it, we give it to the Deacon. He can always be counted upon to give an honest assessment of any situation. Lack of candor isn’t in his repertoire, and he is also in possession of a warm, classic New Orleans clarinet sound. The tones he gets out of his tenor and his soprano are always intelligent, soulful, and filled with the fire of conviction. He brings to the music the sort of power that you hear from a man in touch with himself and with all of the sources of his spiritual essence. Dean can do it. When he steps on the bandstand, you know someone is up there to play.
“On the piano is the J Master, Marcus Roberts. Actually, we call him The Honorable J Master. He is no longer in the band, but we like to say that he is our pianist emeritus. I could say so much about him, but let me be blunt and correct. The Honorable J Master is admired by us all and he knows that we all support him through the spiritual sort of love only a man of his quality can engender. As a matter of fact, before we go on the bandstand every night, someone in the band will say, “You know The J Master is somewhere in the world tonight swinging.” When he was with us, you could always go to Marcus for advice, whether you were having musical problems or personal problems. He would always provide you with a solution that might be demanding but that would always be correct. He has consummate musical integrity, but his most distinguishing trait is his ability to eat three or four plates heaped with food and never gain weight. In this land of frantic dieters, he has truly been blessed. He still learns all of our music and comes out periodically to show us how we should be playing it. For all of us, Marcus Roberts, the Honorable J Master, truly symbolizes the soul of the music.”
If this recording has any subject it is the meaning of human feeling made audible in more than one style. We get a good down-home picture of the church world from which Reginald Veal comes in the first piece, each player ordering his improvisations with attention to the line, to the entire environment, and the mood. The sturdiness and the relaxation of the improvising and the quality of the grooves are indicative of how long this group has worked together and how well each musician takes on the task of extending whatever previous improvised material has been laid down.
The title piece, “Blue Interlude,” is subtitled “The Bittersweet Saga Of Sugar Can And Sweetie Pie.” It shows off in its finest sustained detail what Marsalis calls “the concept.” This is something that, he says, “We’ve been working on since the first record. The concept is about relationships for the purposes of total musical continuity, coherence, and emotional variety. What I learned from listening to people like Monk is that if you keep, as Jelly Roll said, the theme going, then you give the people more than just some stuff you practiced. The concept also creates greater possibilities for participation. What I want is for everybody to take responsibility for the development of the material – what’s written and what’s improvised. That’s the beauty of jazz.
“You see, if I’m playing the third solo, I have to take responsibility for connecting to the first and the second solos and to the theme and to whatever the rhythm section sets up as it’s developing its part. You hear this perfectly in Monk’s bands. He and Charlie Rouse did that all the time. So did Frankie Dunlop, the drummer, and Butch Warren on the bass. That’s what I was after on a large scale in “Blue Interlude.” All of the themes and moods are set in specific places, with specific rhythms and grooves and time signatures. I wanted to use all of the components of music to tell this particular story. I have single line melodies, counterpoint, harmony, modes, antiphony, standard song changes, vamps, riffs, breaks, fanfares, timbral counterpoint, and so on. But, as I learned from listening to Duke Ellington’s “Black, Brown, And Beige” over and over – particularly the last one that he privately recorded – is that it doesn’t mean a thing if the music isn’t about what Susan K. Langer calls the life of human feeling.’ And what better subject to use for the expression of the life of human feeling than a tempestuous love affair between a man and a woman, the world’s greatest duet?”
Once the listener has become acquainted with the material, he or she can absorb the performance totally. It is a signal experience to follow the development of the themes and to discover how all the motifs are moved around in the band. The quality of individual and ensemble tone, the varieties of timbre, the ease with which the players slip on one emotion mask after another, the remarkable rhythm section work, the overall continuity of the improvising – this stretch of mood from the sauntering and charming to the scalding, the melancholy, and the timeless alto song near the end – add up to what is surely a breakthrough and just might be a masterpiece.
“And The Band Played On” is by Coup de Cone. It is written in the style of New Orleans jazz and shows how well these musicians have mastered that style, arriving at real warmth and imagination rather than the by now tired tendency to resort to parody. Marsalis points out that the counterpoint we might think is improvised was actually written by Gordon. “I like to play New Orleans music,” says Marsalis, “because it contains all of the elements we he to recognize in every other style. Once you recognize the core elements – which is what Duke Ellington did – you can develop with real confidence. There is also something in New Orleans music that people like. They feel the community in it, the family feeling, the humor, and the pride in grooves. When Cone brought this to us, I was shocked at how well he had grasped that style. We play this on the road a lot.”
“The Jubilee Suite” is described by its composer, Todd Williams, as “a tune in three parts. The original motive is an idea that I heard Marcus Roberts playing and I believe he might have heard from Duke Ellington or another of our great jazz pianists. That motive contains a major seventh chord with a sharp nine in it. For the listener, it is heard at the very beginning and at the very end. It appears at the start and the end because I wanted the suite to be an original statement in which each section was strong within itself but that used the material and the band for real variations, in the intervals, in the bass notes, in the rhythms, concluding with a line that really takes us back to the beginning.
“Each movement has its own title. The first is called Day To Day,’ the second is called Running And Rambling,’ and the third is called Grace.’ Day To Day,’ which is in the key of E, is supposed to be a musical painting of what we all experience day to day. In eastern music, one identifies a major key with a happy mood. However, the way the chord is structured, with that sharp nine in there, it sounds major and minor because of the dissonance. So the bittersweet experience, some things joyful, some things not so joyful.
Running And Rambling,’ which is in the key of A, is supposed to reflect a more festive kind of attitude, almost carefree, footloose and fancy-free, sort of like a party. Between the second and third movements, there is an interlude that describes the bottom falling out of the party. It’s more solemn, almost like a chorale, in four-part harmony without the rhythm section. Here we begin the modulation to the key of B, which is the key of the last movement, Grace.’ ‘Grace’: expresses my believe that it is through our Lord Jesus Christ that we are restored to the more peaceful meanings of the day-to-day life.”
The concluding piece, “Sometimes It Goes Like That,” is described by Marsalis: “It juxtaposes a lot of different moods and feelings, from the trivial to the profound. It is an attempt to capture in music the range of experiences that one has in the course of a typical day in the modern urban world – all kinds of people and all kinds of things.”
Like everything else on the recording, the concluding piece achieves exactly what it sets out to do. That makes this album the motion up the greasy pole of art that it is. We hear a still young musician coming into his first stage of mastery as a composer of long works. Given the remarkable consistency and variety of his development, we are no longer surprised by the fertile quality of his shorter pieces, but what Wynton Marsalis offers us in Blue Interlude is music capable of charming moonlight off the soft still surface of a midnight lake.
- Stanley Crouch
Marcus Roberts (piano), Wycliffe Gordon (trombone), Wessell Anderson (alto saxophone), Todd Williams (tenor and soprano saxophone), Herlin Riley (drums), Reginald Veal (bass).