Marsalis’s success not a 1-man effort

It’s easy to hear the music of Wynton Marsalis and focus on the seven Grammy awards the trumpeter has won. But no small part of the horn man’s success in jazz rests on the strengths of his band – and those strengths were more than evident last night.

The Marsalis quintet opened a four-night stay at Harper’s in One Oxford Centre with a sold-out set that at times was almost a clinic. Sure, Marsalis demonstrated his considerable skills on trumpet: range, tone, gritty growls and impeccable articulation.
But the band also was outstanding. Pianist Marcus Roberts constructed solos full of dynamic harmonic ideas. Todd Williams offered a hefty sound on tenor sax that complemented Marsalis’s warm tone. And drummer Jeff Watts was nothing short of astounding with his inventive redefinition of rhythms.

This is one of the best editions of Marsalis’s bands. Williams and Veal have been with him only about two months, and they are making their presence felt. Veal more than adequately replaces Robert Hurst, and Williams gives depth that was lacking when Marsalis was working in a quartet format.

“Todd is like Coltrane,” Marsalis said after the set. “He’s always working. He makes me work harder. He’s a serious player.” Indeed. After a warm opening solo on “J Mood” by Marsalis, Williams followed up with a spot of his own that was equally direct, staying comfortably in the middle register. He also stood out in his well aimed solo on “Embraceable You.”

Roberts was, shall we say, serious, too. His solo on “J Mood” was almost minimalist in its simplicity, but its harmonic ideas hinted at what was to come. He heated up the middle section of “What Is This Thing Called Love” with a more intense outing, and by the time he got around to “Delfeayo’s Dilemma,” he was sizzling. On that piece, his harmonics grew more unusual as the solo progressed and his melodic ideas seemed to emerge from the simplest and most off-handed of phrases.

Keeping all of this moving was Watts, who demonstrated why he is one of the most underrated drummers in jazz. He opened “What Is This Thing Called Love” with exotic patterns and kept the mood driving with his almost frighteningly good cymbal work. His rhythmic patterns on the uptempo “Harriet Tubman” also were startlingly clever.

In the midst of all this was Marsalis, sounding confident and increasingly seasoned. When he was bursting on the scene in the early ’80s, Marsalis seemed intent on displaying his formidable chops. Now, however, he seems comfortable backing off and playing in a more relaxed way as he did on “J Mood,” “Embraceable You” and the bluesy “Later.”

But he is still more than willing to rip through brassy, rapid-fire passages like the ones that punctuated his solo on “Delfeayo’s Dilemma.” And he was convincing in his upper-register work on “Harriet Tubman.” That developing maturity and his talented band got Marsalis’s first club appearance in Pittsburgh off to a powerful start.

By Bob Karlovits
Source: The Pittsburgh Press

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