Review - The Spiritual Side of Wynton Marsalis

The Spiritual Side of Wynton Marsalis surveys highlights of Marsalis’ spiritually infused jazz music.

“And the glory goes to God.” The penultimate cut “To Higher Ground” arguably sums things up best on Wynton Marsalis’ “spiritual” compilation, fittingly titled The Spiritual Side of Wynton Marsalis. While The Spiritual Side of Wynton Marsalis doesn’t bring anything new to the virtuosic musician’s arsenal, it does showcase some of the strongest performances of Marsalis’ illustrious career, in which black gospel music and the church played an integral role. With various ensemble formats included, there is a wealth of top-notch traditionally-based jazz music here.

The Spiritual Side of Wynton Marsalis opens with renowned gospel singer Shirley Caesar in top-notch form on “I Hear A Knockin’ (Solo)”. Caesar’s nuanced, spiritual vocals are recognizable from miles away, a sentiment amplified by the intro. Less than one minute in duration, the brief intro serves as an inviting and proper prelude to the ‘Sunday services’ by all means. The traditional, Dixieland-jazz joint “Movement 12: I Am (Don’t You Run From Me)” from All Arise proceeds, finding Marsalis and fellow musicians at their best.The brightness of the sound, particularly trumpet and clarinet, truly shapes “Movement 12”. The entrance of the gospel choir shortly after the one-minute mark creates a welcome timbrel contrast. Following the choral feature, a drum break redirects the attention back to the instruments. Following the stirring selection, Shirley Caesar returns once more, this time accompanied by piano on the expressive “If I Hold On”. Still brief, Caesar’s ability to expressively deliver keeps things interesting.

“Processional” allures, led initially by trombone accompanied by the rhythm section. The skilled horn arrangements truly make this “march in” sound like an ode to the most high. Additionally, the walking bass lines and smart accompaniment from the piano shows the utmost musicianship. Marsalis gets his moment to shine and, unsurprisingly, it is brilliant. Soloing over the rhythm section briefly, Marsalis’ prodigious trumpet playing easily packs a punch. Another brief track follows in “Psalm 26”, but this time it is instrumental. The daring nature of the harmonies shines here. Sure, it’s still ‘traditional jazz’ a la Marsalis’ traditionalist personality, but it is still interesting, even years since it graced the original Marsalis album (Soul Gestures in Southern Blue, Vol. 2). An “Awakening” occurs afterwards, and much like the rest of the compilation, it doesn’t disappoint. The timbrel triumph? That warm, rich clarinet tone coupled with the piano… sigh.

“Hymn” finds the piano making the opening statement, very much in a gospel idiom harmonically. The horns sound gorgeous while stating the melody, with reverence serving as the goal. Piano stars throughout, with its predominately chordal improvisations following the head of the hymn tune. Keeping with tradition, it seems fitting that a Thomas A. Dorsey classic graces The Spiritual Side of Wynton Marsalis. Marion Williams lends her magnificent vocals on “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”, accompanied solely by piano. Remarkably delivered as its own entity, “Precious Lord” doesn’t even end up being the best track necessarily. “In the Sweet Embrace of Life Sermon: Holy Ghost” is certainly in the running for album best, accurately serving as the perfect tone poem. Filled with firepower accentuated through individual dramatic instrumental performances, the “spirit” is certainly at its highest. Growling trombone, agile horn lines, use of chromaticism to ‘up the ante’, “Holy Ghost” is awesome. Among the most powerful instrumental solos? You guessed it — Mr. Marsalis’!

“Flee as a Bird to the Mountain” and “Sing On” deliver compelling traditional cuts, both hailing from 1999 album Reeltime. “Flee as a Bird to the Mountain” is a dirge in the style of the traditional New Orleans funeral. While it’s draggy, it’s an appealing draggy, even as you think of the passed-on loved one in greatest sadness. “Sing On” seems to be the true ‘celebration of life’, contrasting with its quicker tempo and the jubilant Dixieland style. The clarinet countermelody is simply delicious. “Benediction” again provides stark contrast, coming over more reverent and reflective than the raucous, rollicking “Sing On” or the earlier “In The Sweet Embrace of Life Sermon”. The use of bowed bass is additionally thoughtful and ear-catching.

“Oh We Have a Friend in Jesus” yields yet another ‘interlude’, this time with Cassandra Wilson leading the charge vocally. “To Higher Ground” proves to be among the album’s best with an excellent combination of choir and instruments. Playful hits within the horns exhibit a cacophonous edge, something not normally with an inspirational number. “Pot Blessed Dinner” closes solidly, capped off by Marsalis’ blessed trumpet playing.

Ultimately, The Spiritual Side of Wynton Marsalis is a sound, enjoyable compilation. It doesn’t cover the totality of Marsalis’ career, but that’s not its purpose. The biggest takeaway of this compilation is that no matter what hat Wynton Marsalis wears, he’s a musical force to be reckoned with. All hail!

by Brent Faulkner
Source: PopMatters

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