Marsalis’s ‘Human Nature’: Engaging Fairy Tale
“Suite for Human Nature” seems a terribly dull title for a jazz fable, especially one as whimsical and charming as Wynton Marsalis’s latest extended work, which had its world premiere at the Lincoln Theater on Friday night. The renowned trumpeter and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer has written more ambitious and complex orchestral pieces, but none more playfully engaging and family-friendly.
Not that Marsalis deserves all the credit. The delightful libretto by Diane Charlotte Lampert swiftly pulls listeners into a fairy tale gone wrong. Mother Nature, it seems, is having no luck at all when it comes to childbearing — or, to put it more precisely, bearing the behavior of her offspring: brothers Fear, Envy, Greed and Hate. Sister Fickle is a latecomer, but she’s no prize, either. Like her bratty brothers, Fickle is a rotten influence on humans everywhere.
Mom receives lots of parenting advice from spouse Father Time and friends, including West Wind, who doles it out like Dr. Phil. Of course, it’s not as if Mother Nature doesn’t have other concerns. After all, her job description entails, among countless other things, making “more snowflakes than all the fingers and the toes in the whole world could count — and no two snowflakes alike, at that.” Yet “hope springs maternal” in this land of make-believe, and the subsequent arrival of twins named Love conquers all.
The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, featuring Marsalis on trumpet, brought the misbehaving siblings and their occasional squabbles to life with lots of Ellington-like colors and textures. The effect was achieved by riotously pitting reeds against brass, or by emphasizing the sound of a solitary horn — squawking, chortling, belching — or with a series of subtly crafted orchestrations. The Boys Choir of Harlem, though burdened by muffled acoustics at the rear of the stage, made its harmonious presence felt in witty and uplifting fashion during the intermittent mating dances and other pieces.
Commissioned by the Washington Performing Arts Society, “Suite for Human Nature” sweeps across the jazz landscape and beyond. It references and sometimes celebrates 19th-century spirituals and march cadences, early New Orleans jazz polyphony, big-band swing, sultry balladry and bop-inspired scat. Singers Milt Grayson, Jennifer Sanon and Allan Harris were all in fine voice on Friday night. Each vocalist performed a Lampert-penned lyric that neatly advanced the narrative read by actress and “CBS News Sunday Morning” contributor Nancy Giles. A wonderfully expressive storyteller and mimic, Giles should be assigned this role in perpetuity.
The 90-minute suite’s seasonal themes were marked by lushly evocative orchestrations and some radiant solos. Several members of the ensemble stood out, but baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley’s soulful conjuring of an autumnal mood was particularly alluring. Marsalis had his moments as well, trumpeting smeared tones and clarion shouts. His greatest contribution, however, was evident every time the ensemble’s rich sonorities and rhythmic enticements came into focus.
by Mike Joyce
Source: Washington Post