Marsalis proves to be bigger hit before concert

We interrupt this review for a public service announcement: Wynton Marsalis isn’t such a stuffed shirt after all. He joshed playfully with a group of kids from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Chicago at a reception before they went to his concert Monday night at Orchestra Hall.
He spirited away Kendall Johnson, 12, for a brief audition and when Kendall, a natural ham, pouted that he couldn’t practice every day because he didn’t own a trumpet, Marsalis promised to send him one. Someone should check on this boy in 10 years.

Would that Wynton Marsalis had such an amiable relationship with his critics as he had with the children. His career is well into a period of critical revisionism, whereby he has gone from rising star to enigmatic veteran whose brilliant musicianship is often tempered by a rather soulless presentation.

The performance at Orchestra Hall with his sextet offered more reasons to question why the captain runs the tightest ship since Ahab. His sidemen, particularly tenor saxophonist Todd Williams and alto saxophonist Wes Anderson, occasionally reach some inspired blowing, but there was restraint, nearly distress in their playing, as though they could be yanked like a struggling relief pitcher if they tried more than brief and tame recollections of John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly.

Marsalis’ featured ballads, “The Very Thought of You” and “Where or When’ were uninspired and received that way by the audience, although he did leave many humming his bouncy closer, “Walking in a Winter Wonderland.”

There’s no pleasure in chronicling Marsalis’ shortcomings, because it has been done so routinely in recent years. If one accepts the concert as some kind of repertory production, a trip through classic jazz, then it had several fine, and occasionally brilliant, moments. His band can move seamlessly through musical styles, although its discussion of history is limited to chapters that are at least 20 years old.

The band created an uncanny reconstruction of a Duke Ellington small group with Ellington’s little-heard “Where’s the Music?” Pianist Marcus Roberts emulated Ellington’s touch and timing perfectly, and Todd Williams adeptly recalled the sweetly buttoned-down clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton. The band offered similar, if slightly less successful, here-is-history treatments of “And the Band Played On and On,” a tribute to early New Orleans musicians written by Marsalis’ trombonist, Wycliffe Gordon, and Jelly Roll Morton’s “The Jungle Blues.”

Roberts is the most likely of Marsalis’ current crop of sidemen to emerge as a leader himself, and he showed that he is gradually shaking off the influences of Ellington and Thelonius Monk and crafting a sparing, subtle style of his own.

But there is still a disturbing rigidity of motion and emotion to Marsalis’ band, and if a musician can be set in his ways at the relatively tender age of 28, it won’t change. There’s hope it might, maybe about the time young Kendall Johnson is ready to join the band.

By R. Bruce Dold
Source: Chicago Tribune

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