Marsalis’s Stylishly Solid Septet, Feeling Right at Home

When the Wynton Marsalis Septet played the theme of Thelonious Monk’s ‘‘Hackensack’‘ on Tuesday night at the Village Vanguard, every quarter of the four-horn front line carried a controlled, distinct weight. Each musician projected a particular volume and tone, and the sum was a fine, calibrated mix. You could hear it all and marvel at the craft in it.

There’s nothing else like this group; perhaps until the marketplace demands it, there won’t be. The septet comes from the core of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, which tours widely and inevitably shares some repertory with it. In a sense it’s all one intertwined, ongoing project. During the first half of the 90’s, the septet’s innovations were in many ways overshadowed by Mr. Marsalis’s activities as artistic director for Jazz at Lincoln Center. For many who followed his pronouncements, he became more identified with ideals of aesthetic responsibility for jazz than with his actual music.

Five years ago the band took an indefinite break. Now, well into Mr. Marsalis’s career as a composer of long-form works as well as his development of Lincoln Center’s jazz programming, it is a good deal easier to separate the workings of the institutional program and his sprightly septet.

The septet’s new seven-disc set, ‘‘Live at the Village Vanguard’‘ (Columbia/Sony), selects performances at that club from 1990 to 1994, and the group’s homecoming upon its release was a necessary step to prove that nothing heard on the album was a matter of chance. The album’s sound quality is first rate, but in Tuesday night’s early set the real thing was better. The low-ceilinged, triangular room gave the music astonishing warmth and clarity.

Of course much of that can be attributed to the band. During the first stretch of the septet’s life — and chances are that this week’s engagement probably isn’t a one-shot reunion — Mr. Marsalis put a richness of history and mood into its music, effectively fusing different jazz idioms across sections of the band. He showed that arrangement and composition are important, but not the entire picture; the band paid minute attention to tone color in its collective improvising as well as its written material.

New Orleans street rhythms are always bubbling to the surface in the playing of the drummer Herlin Riley. He would prefer to hit a cowbell once or drag an index finger across the head of a snare drum than to do anything that flattened the other sounds of the band. His interlocked patterns with the bassist Rodney Whitaker on Tuesday, cogent to the bone, allowed the audience to glean the most from the whole group’s sound. It was often flavor, rather than force, that made the performances special.

There were changes in instrumentation and severe manipulations of sound in nearly every song of the set, something that has become much more commonplace in the jazz world since Mr. Marsalis’s maturation. He and Victor Goines (on bass clarinet) each played ballad standards, mostly backed only by bass and drums.

There was a brass-duet version of Ray Noble’s ‘‘Cherokee’‘ in which Mr. Marsalis and the trombonist Ron Westray both played with Harmon mutes, producing a comically small, narrow sound. (Again, the club’s acoustics worked in collaboration with the band leader.) And Mr. Marsalis’s remarkably moving piece ‘‘Sunflowers,’‘ from the soon-to-be released ‘‘Marciac Suite,’‘ was mostly arranged for four harmonized horns, with Mr. Riley playing hand drums and tambourine.

Mr. Marsalis’s performance was more subdued than usual. The need to press toward quick-articulation triumphs in so much of his playing can make it hard to distinguish one glittering performance from another. But on Tuesday he was different: relaxed, putting long pauses between phrases, making amiable yarns of his solos more than steel-edged soliloquies.

by Ben Ratliff
Source: New York Times

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