Marsalis and his trumpet get jazz fest rolling on intense note

Those who still doubt that trumpeter Wynton Marsalis has found a voice all his own probably were not at Grant Park on Thursday night, when Marsalis played a mesmerizing set for the opening of the Chicago Jazz Festival.

Leading his excellent septet, Marsalis offered a melodically intense, sonically ravishing performance. Each number-whether uptempo, ballad or blues- touched on the origins of African-American music.

It’s a direction Marsalis has been pursuing since his ‘‘Majesty of the Blues’‘ recording of 1989, and it’s one that he took to fuller dimensions in his ‘‘Soul Gestures in Southern Blue’‘ trilogy.

But the speed and breadth of his development is proceeding rapidly, for he and his group sound much further along than even the ‘‘Soul Gestures’‘ set suggests.

It’s true that the musical vocabulary that defined his work Thursday night is essentially the same as that on the ‘‘Soul Gestures’‘ recordings:
Harmonically complex, ambiguous chords; rhythms repeated over and over to create an incantational effect; melodic ideas stated with lyric fervor. By blending the flavor of ancient African improvisation with the small-group ambience of Jelly Roll Morton and the chromatic ideas of contemporary music, Marsalis has built a musical vocabulary that draws deeply on the history of jazz.

But if ‘‘Majesty of the Blues’‘ introduced that vocabulary, and ‘‘Soul Gestures’‘ vastly expanded it, Marsalis’ jazz festival set dramatically illustrated how far he has come toward refining that language. Now, instead of repeating his ideas constantly throughout a set, he is developing them along several different tangents.

Thus he explored a hyperdramatic vibrato in a blues; outlandishly bent pitches and phrases that defied a rhythmic pulse in a long solo; and pungent top-register harmonics and chromatic slides in an old standard, ‘‘Star Dust.’‘ Those who dismiss Marsalis as strictly a musical conservative are deceived by the setting and mood of his music. Listen closely to the note choices, clusters and chromatic ornaments he’s using and it’s apparent that he’s searching for fresh sounds.

Perhaps the most telling factor was the sheer economy of his playing, as well as that of the other horn players in his group. Simply put, the idea was to say more with fewer notes and leaner tunes.

The evening also included a fine, duo-piano set from Ramsey Lewis and Billy Taylor; William Russo leading a strong performance of his Big Band arrangements; a painfully repetitious, one-idea set from pianist Marilyn Crispell; and a comparatively conservative performance from Vandy Harris and the Front Burners.

by Howard Reich
Source: Chicago Tribune

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