By turns soothing, urgent, playful, and angry, From the Plantation to the Penitentiary distills Marsalis’ recent observations on our modern American way of life as he’s traveled the nation as a performer, teacher, and private citizen. Through the sultry alto of 21-year old singer Jennifer Sanon, he gives voice to the “tattered ragmen” of America in Find Me, rebukes our misogynistic entertainment industry- “I ain’t no bitch and I ain’t your ho”- in The Return of Romance, and denounces the uncontrolled financial exploitation of modern America in which “there’s never enough” in the frantic Super Capitalism. The most striking track on the album is Where Y’all At?, a rare spoken-word vocal performance by Marsalis, in which he demands to know what’s happened to all the responsible leaders in America- Where y’all at?
The album has its bright moments as well: the languid These Are Those Soulful Days was inspired by the diehard, bicoastal friendship between his 10-year old son and Walter Blanding’s 11-year old twin daughters that these three have maintained almost since birth, while the bouncy and soulful instrumental Doin Our Thing lets Marsalis and his band interpret various types of 4/4 grooves anchored, of course, by the swing.
The seven tracks on the album are all new compositions, with lyrics and music by Wynton Marsalis. Walter Blanding (reeds), Dan Nimmer (piano), Carlos Henriquez (bass), and Ali Jackson (drums) round out the Wynton Marsalis quintet.
|From The Plantation to the Penitentiary||11:47||Play|
|Doin’ (Y)Our Thing||8:36||Play|
|Love And Broken Hearts||7:39||Play|
|These Are Those Soulful Days||8:03||Play|
|Where Y’All At?||5:47||Play|
CAN YOU SEE?
Art evolves with society and is informed by society, but an artist should never be so intimidated by the need for social acceptance that he or she will change the personal discovery of a vital truth just to fit in with vaporous trends. But sometimes the vapor of a trend is as rooted in poisoned gas as bigotry is rooted in brutal superstition. Sometimes, as the New Orleans legend Buddy Bolden is supposed to have said, all we have to do is open up the windows and let the bad air out. Nothing quite so simple can be done with superstition because it will not, like gas, rise up and float away when wind is allowed in through the window and bad air is ushered out. Some artists compose and perform as though they will continue to open up the window, no matter how that opening is responded to, whether with acceptance or rejection.
Wynton Marsalis is one of the most important artists of our moment because the quality and range of his talent has few peers and his integrity is exceeded by no one. (Uh oh: did I hear somebody say integrity in this house?) Like Bolden, this contemporary son of New Orleans made a name for himself by “calling the children home.” Marsalis reestablished the power and elegance of jazz in his time and for his generation and for all generations that came before or after his. This has now been going on for over twenty years and it was no small achievement when it began and the opposition to what Marsalis went after was met both with great acceptance and great rejection. None of that stopped him from going his own way and from carrying much of the jazz world with him.
There were still problems because it sometimes seems to many that the balance achieved by integrity is impossible; the consequence is that the very idea of equilibrium starts to take on the form of a bitter myth due to the stubborn certitude of the protean opposition, which is almost as wily and flexible as art itself. One strain of opposition has evolved from the condition that began in 1619 when twenty African slaves arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. Neither those slaves nor anyone else knew that plantation bondage would last for over two hundred years and that 600,000 people would have to die in a bloody civil war before the slaves were freed into an ambiguous fate. That’s how hard-headed the opposition to abolition was.
That is also why the certainty of inevitable freedom was made clear in the only way it could by Abraham Lincoln, the commander in chief during that civil war. In his Second Inaugural Address, the president of the United States expressed the heroic and collective sense of democracy that he knew was the only solution. No, Lincoln did not bite his tongue on March 4, 1865 when he said,“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’ ”
The level of collective commitment made clear by Lincoln is what we need today, across all lines of political and ethnic distinction, because far too many of the descendants of those chattel now live in a variation on plantation life that has become a national presence so pernicious that it inspired the title track of this recording. We must remember, however, that the blues awaits us all. It never fails to tell us that the ultimate truth is simple while complex: good and evil dance so closely together that they could easily become one–but never do! They simply coexist in perpetuity. The proportions of that coexistence are always left up to us. Those proportions are questioned throughout this recording and something lyrical and soulful is always responding to the sorrows and the difficulties, good dancing with evil while doing its best to step on the feet of the blues.
As usual Marsalis continues to prove his preeminence as a trumpet player and a leader of men, this time bringing along a new singer that he is as proud of as he is of the remarkable instrumentalists who move on up to higher ground with him. From their moving position on the hill, the air is quite clear and you can see everything you need to see. Some of it is horrible but it is taken on by the beautiful, and the battle is something to behold.
Walter Blanding (tenor & soprano saxophones), Jennifer Sanon (vocals), Dan Nimmer (piano), Carlos Henriquez (bass), Ali Jackson (drums)