Review/Jazz; The New Orleans in Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis is coming to terms with his hometown, New Orleans. The style he honed through the 1980’s hails primarily from such New York City bands as Miles Davis’s groups from the late 1950’s through the mid-1960’s, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and to a lesser extent the John Coltrane quartet. But when he led a sextet Tuesday to open a six-night engagement at the Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue, at 19th Street, Mr. Marsalis played pieces (including selections from his forthcoming album) steeped in older New Orleans music.

His first note of the evening was a plunger-muted growl, and throughout the concert’s two sets he used the smears and rasps of early jazz along with the pure-toned, agile melodic style he is known for. Mr. Marsalis, a scholar of jazz-trumpet styles, has clearly been reinvestigating the work of Bubber Miley, who growled bluesy solos for the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the 1920’s.

With his new sextet, Mr. Marsalis is broadening his music. His standards are more confident than ever; on Tuesday, they included the fleet muted arrangement of ‘‘Cherokee’‘ that appeared on his album ‘‘Live at Blues Alley’‘ and an intensely private songful version of ‘‘If I Should Lose You.’‘ And his knotty, mercurial compositions, rooted in mid-1960’s hard-bop, have grown more ambitious. There are pieces with solos bracketed by nonrepeating ensemble passages, pieces with dense counterpoint and pieces that demand (as ‘‘Black Codes’‘ does) that the group improvise with the Coltrane quartet’s broad strokes at one point and the Davis quintet’s detail at another.

And there was also a surprising amount of down-home music: a dirge with a single modernizing dissonance; a hybrid of rhythm-and-blues and two-step; a piece with a carnival-drum undercurrent, and a train song, complete with steam-turbine brushes and saxophone toots. A version of ‘‘Chasin’ the Bird’‘ moved the be-bop original back toward the polyphony of traditional jazz, with three interwoven horn parts instead of two.

The sextet is meticulous and well rehearsed, and the soloists take their time as they create uncluttered melodies; there’s no speed for speed’s sake and very few rote sequences or licks. Marcus Roberts, on piano, plinks out single-note lines, sparsely chorded, like a post-bop Teddy Wilson; Wes Anderson on alto saxophone and Todd Williams on tenor saxophone each has an authoritative unsentimental tone and a way of poking into unexpected harmonic areas. Reginald Veal on bass and Merlin Riley on drums carry the music with an insistent swing, making seamless transitions from hushed sections to splashy ones. And Mr. Marsalis tests himself with every solo, making his instrument sing and moan as he probes the tunes.

Even when it gets bluesy, the music stays thoughtful; it doesn’t cut loose. Yet its intelligence, its concentration and its love of melody are passions in themselves.

by John Pareles
Source: New York Times

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