Marsalis at Symphony Hall: A show of authoritative lyricism

Wynton Marsalis has always seemed confident – he has, after all, received the adulation usually reserved for more startlingly original artists. He’s a brilliantly controlled instrumentalist, whose solos, with their tripping runs, startling leaps and rubbery rhythmic displacements, have nevertheless a kind of dapper finish and polish. But on record at least, he has sometimes seemed, not quite glib, but more concerned with technique than with passion.
He seemed to be skipping rocks over the beat. And it didn’t help that his arrangements and repertoire came out of mid-‘60s Miles Davis.

Now he is asserting himself more as a leader, playing a wider variety of tunes and engaging his band in the enlivening rhythmic games that marked both his Symphony Hall concert and his new Columbia album, “J Mood.” Marsalis opened at Symphony Hall with a tribute to his home town, playing Hoagy Carmichael’s “New Orleans” with a hip nonchalance on his tightly muted trumpet. His relaxed phrases bubbled good-humoredly until he entered a slow, long downward run over the shifting rhythms provided by his drummer, Jeff “Tain” Watts.

Watts, with his loose, Tony-Williams-derived style, is the most important member of Marsalis’ band. Bassist Robert Hurst is less assertive, playing usually right in the center of the beat, rarely pushing the soloists. Pianist Marcus Roberts is a patient, thoughtful player, who seems uninterested in swing at all. He began his solo on “New Orleans” with a simple motif, which he elaborated with a kind of glum caution, unfolding his phrases as carefully as if he were opening a package that might explode. Only late in the concert did he flare up dramatically.

What this band – it also Included tenor saxophonist Don Braden – offered was not, despite the players’ ages, the fervor of youth, but a kind of intelligent alertness to the shifts and surprises in Marsalis’ playing. He offered an unusual “April in Paris” which called upon the band to accelerate and brake together, a lush version of “Star Eyes,” and a brightly varied “Autumn Leaves.” The band didn’t offer enough support for Marsalis on “Cherokee”: Roberts was often silent, and Hurst reticent. But they followed tele-pathically the swift shifts of Marsalis’ arrangement of “Autumn Leaves.”

And they were more at ease with the Marsalis originals of the second half of Skain’s Domain,” the blues-derived “Much Later,” and “J Mood,” which Marsalis introduced with a big, broad-toned open horn. Later he would step back from the mike and repeate a simple phrase with blaring intensity; he might have been Cootie Williams.

On “Much Later” Marsalis quoted “Jingle Bells” and “I Wish You a Merry Christmas,” but he was outdone by his pianist, who during his solo on “Autumn Leaves” managed to work in a fragment from Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and “The Flight of the Bumblebee.”
This was wit of a high order, but the concert will be most remembered for the authoritative lyricism of much of Marsalis’ playing.

By Michael Ullman
Source: Boston Globe

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