A mature Marsalis opens up at Bailey Hall

Tucked away in the middle of a solo in a tune of the first set was the surest sign of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’ true genius. Without calling attention to it, Marsalis let rip a blazing contrapuntal line that in one effortless motion, confirmed his status as both consummate technician and melody maker.
That moment was embedded in the middle of a larger phrase, not isolated like a well-rehearsed lick might have been. Technically it was flawless, with a pedal point as solid as granite, performed at a speed other brass players could only gasp at. Bach could not have created a more dramatic line.

But Marsalis’s fleeting acknowledgement of his classical roots paled in comparison to his open recognition of the jazz tradition. Sunday night’s Bailey Hall concert, a sell-out, showed Marsalis courting his New Orleans background with a zeal and enthusiasm approaching a religious fervor. He is a man with a mission. He is perhaps the foremost jazz educator; a brief lecture on the traditional music of a New Orleans funeral was followed by an updated performance of the same, retaining all of the sobriety and processional drumming of the march to the cemetery and all of the raucousness and celebration of the return.

Yet, this was no mundane re-creation. Marsalis turned the affair on its ear; yielding to a decidedly Harry James-like solo, stridently played as Harry no doubt would have wanted it. Drummer Herlin Riley, as rooted in the tradition as Marsalis, followed the precepts of Gene Krupa and Max Roach, sticking closely to the melodic school of drumming, four-bar phrases that freed the audience to explore the more melodic aspects of the style.

Marsalis’s versatility is all the more remarkable, not for his well-documented ease in both the classical and jazz worlds, but for his freedom within the jazz idiom itself. His ability to adapt to the demands of style is unmatched in the jazz world. Most jaz-zers carve themselves a niche; Stanley Turrentine’s tenor is soulful, bluesy and free. Miles is introverted and gestural. Coltrane was ethereal even in his early years, pregnant with possibility.

But Marsalis can be all of these and he can change on demand. In his last visit to Cornell, when the now-plowed under Statler. Auditorium provided a more intimate forum, an introverted Marsalis played impeccably, thoughtfully. Rarely did he unleash the full measure of his sound. It was as if he invited us into the Blue Note, where a blast of the brass will bounce off the not-so-far wall and plaster the player against the piano before he can say “coda.”
But Saturday night’s gig brought a gregarious Marsalis to the stage. He wailed, New Orleans-style, with an accuracy more at home in Carnegie not Preservation Hall. Yet instantly, Marsalis shifted gears. His version of Charlie Parker’s “Cherokee,” became soft and transcendent.. Lines sped up, the volume turned down.

Chameleon-like, Marsalis jumped into “Uptown Ruler,” a seventies-ish tune played wispy yet full, like a woman in cashmere; an uncanny flugel-like sound emanating from his trumpet. Tenor saxophonist Todd Williams proved to be Marsalis’ alter ego. When Marsalis played hard, Williams laid back, letting his solos lazily unfold.

Pianist Marcus Roberts’ voicings in the opening tune clearly payed tribute to McCoy Tyner. In a concert where everyone had the chance to be upfront and personal, the subtlety of Roberts’ style was largely missed, lost in a mix that placed him somewhere out in the foyer. Despite this, his was a special relationship with reedman Williams, Roberts being especially attuned to the riffs Williams would feed him.

Altoist Wes Anderson fared less well. Though smooth and accomplished, his licks were transparent, often seeming to have been strung together while he searched for something new.
Bassist Reginald Veal proved up to the task. Veal’s support was thorough and constant, relying more on pulse and motor devices than implied roots couched in solo lines to propel the band.

The maturing of Marsalis as a player and person has both positive and negative aspects. He is already destined to be one of the century’s giants of jazz. He is articulate and intelligent, unafraid to show his respect for history while using his knowledge to forge new directions. Compared to his last Cornell visit, Saturday’s concert revealed a more tired and perhaps distant Marsalis, one who is a bit less humble than before, one who is becoming aware of his shadow, unavoidably so, and at least for now is using it for his cause.

by Peter Rolhbart
Source: The Ithaca Journal

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