The 10 Best Wynton Marsalis Albums
Trumpeter and composer: love him or resent him. But Marsalis is one of the most prolific instrumentalists of the last 40 years. A virtuoso in both jazz and Western classical music, he has recorded as many as 75 times as a leader, including his long discography leading the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Thrust into the spotlight by Columbia Records before he was 21 years old—Marsalis, born in 1961, won simultaneous Grammys in jazz and classical categories in both 1983 and 1984—he has a limited career as a sideman but has also made notable recordings with Art Blakey, Herbie Hancock, and others.
Beyond the music itself, Marsalis has been a lightning rod. His central role in Ken Burns’ Jazz series and his founding of Jazz at Lincoln Center, where he is currently Managing and Artistic Director, both put him in the role of defining a “jazz establishment“—and one that often was explicitly traditional and suspicious of both avant-garde traditions in jazz and fusions of jazz with popular music. Along with jazz critic Stanley Crouch, who passed in 2020, Marsalis often engaged in polemics on how jazz should be laser-defined by the tradition of swing rhythm, acoustic instrumentation, and harmonic structures based in blues, ballad, and Latin playing.
Additionally, as Marsalis won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize in music for his oratorio Blood on the Fields, he increasingly positioned himself as a serious composer and not just a trumpet player or jazz musician. As a result, attention shifted away from what an astonishing jazz soloist Marsalis always was, decade after decade, and how good his bands and his crackling recordings really were.
Marsalis has a new recording, The Democracy! Suite, featuring a septet pulled from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. It is his first small-band recording in a while, and—like the bulk of his music—it swings like mad. It is cannily arranged and skillful, hitting a variety of moods and referents. The players get lots of solo time and use it well. That said, it comes after so very much Marsalis music that it’s a bit like yet another Woody Allen movie—if you’d never experienced one before you might be like Whoaaaaa, what’s this? But you have seen/heard them all before.
Amidst the abundance, however, there are some dazzlers, and it’s high time we picked a Wynton Marsalis Top Ten from his career-spanning trove, at least on the jazz side—which is where he has concentrated his talent.
The material is vast, and I could have eliminated the fun of this article by simply recommending the colossal and superb seven-disc box set Live a the Village Vanguard from 1999 (a year when Marsalis released eight other albums). It compiles recordings by his septet across five years and includes material from everything he had done up to that point, including his extended works—all played with dash and polish, live. (A year later, Sony put out a single-CD “best of”, and that’s great too, easily deserving a top-five placement on this list.) But, because I have painstakingly listened to all the underlying recordings, I’m going leave Live at the Village Vanguard here as the adjustable wrench of the Marsalis toolbox.
Now, in descending order—and with my explanation of why they sound so fantastic, who else was making these dates, and those exact moments that show off the kind of playing that you can only get from Wynton Marsalis—I offer The Wynton To Ten. He is, after all, still one of the greatest trumpet players ever.
Why It’s Really Good: When Marsalis wrote and recorded this almost two-hour suite for his septet, he was in the midst of his first ambitious, long-form composition/performances. This felt like the one he should explore further in the years to come (and he would do exactly that two decades on—see The Absynnian Mass, toward the top of this list). Set up in the form of a mass (with a “Devotional”, a “Call to Prayer”, a “Processional” etc.) it includes some singing from the band as well as playing, all of which comes together on the compelling “In the Sweet Embrace of Life”, featuring brilliant playing from the leader and the bassist Reginald Veal. Ellingtonian, yes, with Todd Williams’s tenor saxophone dishing out rare Paul Gonsalves action and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon clinching the connection, but not derivative. Inconsistent, maybe, but it gets to greatness eventually.
Killer Track: “In the Sweet Embrace of Life”
Notable Collaborators: Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon
Wynton-ian Moment: On “In the Sweet Embrace of Life Sermon: Holy Ghost”, pianist Eric Reed sets up a driving, uptempo gospel groove and the first solo is highly vocalized trombone magic from Gordon. Then the key changes and it’s Marsalis’s turn—and he takes his time, develops some themes, makes his tone increasingly growly and varied, uses repeated licks, smears, and shouts, then he finally just obliterates things with a call-and-response section with the other horns. Yes, of course, he was mimicking some heroes (Armstrong, some of the Ellington trumpet players), but no one else was doing this kind of thing in 1994. Retro but exciting and far from packaged.
9. Live at Blues Alley 
Why It’s Really Good: After Marsalis moved on from his initial, sizzling, Miles Davis-inspired quintet, he made some terrific recordings with this quartet, featuring pianist Marcus Roberts in place of Kenny Kirkland and no saxophone. (Kirkland and Branford were playing with Sting around this time.) Capable of burning (“Skain’s Domain”) and playing sumptuous ballads (“Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans”), this band keeps it lightly cooking throughout this club date—and some of this stuff is so good (a version of “Cherokee” with Harmon mute) that the audience is clearly transported. This was the last pure flowering of Marsalis’s virtuosity on the horn as the main dish. Eat up.
Killer Tracks: “Cherokee” and “Chamber of Tain”
Notable Collaborators: Pianist Marcus Roberts
Wynton-ian Moment: Marsalis opens the closer, “Much Later”, accompanied only by bass and drums, improvising in a what-if-Louis-Armstong-were-still-alive style. As good as Roberts is on all these tracks, the leader proves the piano irrelevant by playing with total command, wit, and melodic brilliance. And when the piano enters it just gets even better, but only because the trio, alone, built the tension sky-high across three full minutes.
8. Think of One 
Why It’s Very Good: Marsalis’s Columbia Records debut as a leader in 1982 used brother Branford but otherwise was distinguished by support from the old Miles Davis rhythm section (Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams). This sophomore release was the coming-out party for his superb young working band, with Jeff Watts’s drums and Kenny Kirkland’s piano being genuine stars of many tracks. Branford’s tenor solo on Wynton’s “Knozz-Moe King” is a fine Wayne Shorter imitation, but the accompaniment from the rhythm section is the real highlight. Immediately afterward, Kirkland and the trio take off with total originality. No offense to the horns, but WOW.
Marsalis’ puckish arrangement of the Thelonious Monk title track is ingenious, flush in singing dynamics and elasticity, and his original tune “Later” is similarly playful. Kirkland’s “Fuschia” is also a slice of original art. Beyond that, we get a glimpse of Marsalis’s formal excellence with standard tunes on both “My Ideal” and Ellington’s “Melancholia”. Any notion that this kid’s emergence as a jazz leader was a fluke was obviated by Think of One.
Killer Tracks: “Knozz-Moe King” and “Think of One”
Notable Collaborators: Pianist Kenny Kirkland, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts
Wynton-ian Moment: On Kirkland’s “Fuschia”, Marsalis begins his solo with a motif from the melody, does not turn up the theatrics too quickly, leaves room for creative accompaniment by the composer, and then plays something shapely with a great climax, all with economy—like a mature artist whose ego was not in the way.
7. Herbie Hancock Quartet 
Why It’s Very, Very Good: Before his debut as a leader, Marsalis toured with the famed Hancock/Ron Carter/Tony Williams rhythm section (just years after those three toured with Freddie Hubbard and Wayne Shorter as “VSOP”), both with and without brother Branford on sax. The quintet was recorded, but this was the official release, as a quartet, recorded in Japan in 1981 and released a year later. And there are no mincing words: this trio is always remarkable, exploratory, and elite, but Marsalis doesn’t ever blink, playing with brio and expressive brilliance at every turn. This is the Wynton who sounded like a modern, liquidy Clifford Brown but playing in the dizzy give-and-take style of Miles Davis’s 1960s band. Two tunes each by Monk, Hancock, Carter, and Williams, plus “I Fall in Love Too Easily”.
Killer Tracks:* Carter’s “A Quick Sketch”, which really lets the band get loose and free, and a fast “Well, You Needn’t”.*
Notable Collaborators: Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams
Wynton-ian Moment: Hancock’s earlier recordings of “The Eye of the Hurricane” let trumpeter Freddie Hubbard go nuts. Marsalis goes his own way on the tune, buzzing and sliding, jabbering and dancing like a kid in a sandbox. Less muscular than Freddie, but close to as good.
6. Levee Low Moan 
Why It’s Excellent: As his compositional ambition (and affection for Ellington) grew, Marsalis started thinking more conceptually and in longer arcs. This was the third of three albums referred to (very pretentiously, yes) as “Soul Gestures in Southern Blue“—each an attempt to steer away from the abstraction of post-bop modern and back toward blues and swing. The band was in transition: Herlin Riley was bringing more New Orleans and less hard bop to the drum kit, Todd Williams brought a more neo-swing vibe on tenor sax, Roberts was still hanging in on piano, and a second saxophone expanded the ensemble to six pieces.
Critical reception to the music was poor, but bafflingly so in retrospect. This is elegant music that walks a hip and slippery bridge from Wynton’s modernist small-group music of the 1980s to his future. If it seemed like some kind of backward movement at the time, well, the dancing groove I hear in “Jig’s Jig” just sounds good, and Wessel Anderson’s alto solo is rich in harmonic interest—far from retro. On “Superb Starling”, we hear Marsalis the composer start to deal with orchestration in interesting ways.
Killer Tracks: “Jig’s Jig” and “In the House of Williams”
Notable Collaborators: Drummer Herlin Riley, alto saxophonist Wessel Anderson
Wynton-ian Moment: On “So This Is Jazz, Huh?”, a ballad set over a skittering New Orleans groove, Marsalis takes a sonically restrained solo that becomes a clinic in using a repeated single note to brilliant effect. Several times, he takes a single note and just repeats it with subtle rhythmic and tonal variations as if his horn was a drum. Which, at its best, it often is.
5. Album of the Year (Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers) 
Why It’s Excellent: Before he had truly settled on a jazz career, Marsalis came to New York from New Orleans, drawn by education at Julliard but highjacked by the chance to attend the real graduate school: a spot in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Marsalis arrived in the band at a wonderful time and helped to catalyze a notable renaissance for Blakey, overlapping with alto saxophonist (and tunesmith) Bobby Watson, tenor saxophonist Bill Pierce, bassist Charles Fambrough, and pianist James Williams. The band is fleet and fine, and we get to hear the 19-year-old as a technically brilliant trumpet athlete with a quicksilver tone, brimming with ideas. Happily, the rest of the band is just as marvelous, including Blakey in mature glory.
Killer Tracks: “In Case You Missed It”, “The Soulful Mr. Timmons”
Notable Collaborators: Alto saxophonist Bobby Watson, drummer Art Blakey
Wynton-ian Moment: On Wayne Shorter’s “Witch Hunt”, Watson and Pierce take mature, bracing solos, then Marsalis comes along third and plays a solo that is twice as memorable and inventive as its predecessors. He was 19.
4. Marsalis Plays Monk (Standard Time Vol. 4) 
Why It’s Superb: Marsalis’s “Standard Time” series (we all stopped counting the volumes—there was even a Jelly Roll Morton version) was a systematic way for him to deal with some of the canon and making “your Monk record” was nearly an obligation for a particular generation of players. Marsalis uses his septet with pianist Eric Reed, two or three reeds, and Wycliffe Gordon’s essential trombone to assay a non-typical set of Monk classics—no “Round Midnight”, “Blue Monk”, or “Well, You Needn’t” for example.
The arrangements are varied, often punchy, and decidedly fat-free. “Monk’s Mood” gets no solos. “Hackensack” is uniquely voiced and phrased, setting up a bass solo and an improvised duet for trumpet and alto. The rarely heard “Brake’s Sake” receives an utterly ingenious mini-big band arrangement, with Marsalis’s solo among the best of the set. “Brilliant Corners” is taken just by Eric Reed’s trio. After many recordings where Marsalis’s devotions to Armstrong and Ellington felt like they were enclosing his own style, having to deal with the more playful light of a third genius of the music—Monk—was a tonic.
Killer Tracks: “Reflections”, “Thelonious”
Notable Collaborators: Monk’s tunes
Wynton-ian Moment: “Four in One” is a complex line to start with, and the trumpet solo here starts as a stately, mid-register statement but in the second chorus begins double-timing in brilliant flurries that connect back to the theme and to the ideas set out in that first chorus. Throw in some soulful bent-tone half-valving and you have a Marsalis solo to listen to over and over again.
3. Blood on the Fields 
Why It’s Fantastic: On the one hand, this oratorio for three voices and jazz orchestra epitomizes Marsalis’s most grand notions of importance (it is about nothing less heavy than American slavery) and tradition: the band has little recitations of text and Marsalis was in the midst of a period of Ellington wrangling that no one else has ever attempted. The grandiosity was a bit much. On the other hand, it rises to and far, far above its critics.
The opening “Calling the Indians Out (Part I)” is a big, brash bit of programmatic music that suggests Mingus as much as Ellington. There are lush, romantic ballads, dances, dirges, and moments of triumph. Cassandra Wilson sings the part of Leona, Miles Griffith sings Jesse, and Jon Hendricks sings the third set of roles—and Regina Carter briefly appears on violin. It’s 160 minutes of music that tries desperately to be great. And it is.
Killer Tracks: “Soul for Sale” with Hendricks singing puckishly about a colossal crime and then scatting (!), and “I Hold Out My Hands”, sung sensuously by Cassandra
Notable Collaborators: Cassandra Wilson, Jon Hendricks, pianist Eric Reed
Wynton-ian Moment: In all of this, there isn’t a moment of trumpet bravado that is plainly the composer. Maybe that’s the point?
2. The Abyssinian Mass 
Why It’s Superb: Marsalis may lack humility, but he doesn’t lack talent or ambition. This remarkable set of compositions is in the form of a mass, all written for and performed with not only the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra but also the Chorale le Catheau, 80 voices strong, all conducted by Damien Sneed. In his body of work, there is Marsalis writing for singers, for strings, for all sort of combinations, but here his grandest ambitions are matched by a tradition that grounds him even as it expands him.
The chorale is superb and strong, balancing the orchestra and dirtying them up too. There is jazz here, of course, but also gospel music, bossa nova, call-and-response everywhere. It’s serious but joyous in ways that almost none of Wynton’s long-form stuff gets to. I find myself ranking this and Blood on the Fields so high because the “degree of difficulty” on these recordings was through-the-roof. Wynton Marsalis could have just played the trumpet like a madman for his entire career. But he went further.
Killer Tracks: “Recessional: The Glory Train“—because Marsalis has done whole albums of his “train” grooves, but this one comes with killer gospel singing.
Notable Collaborators: Chorale le Catheau, Damien Sneed
Wynton-ian Moment: It’s clearly Wynton taking the swinging, gorgeously phrased trumpet solo on “Offertory: The Son” It’s a slice of modern jazz amidst the rest of this, showing the continuity of the art form.
1. Black Codes 
Why It’s Mind-Blowing: After 35 years, this album remains stunning and brash, certainly the highlight of Marsalis’s early years and the recording no one can seem to get out of their head. He wasn’t quite the new kid in jazz anymore, playing largely to blow your mind. But he wasn’t yet engaged in a giant project to reignite the passion for (and reimagine) Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington for a new age. Black Codes is a fully mature album made by a crackling young band that had a thousand gears and a thousand ideas, extending the modern, post-bop tradition.
It’s easy to forget today that, in 1985, there hadn’t been hundreds of sharp neo-bop albums made by bands of “young lions“—this date had a genuine JAZZ IS BACK! vibe to it, but it all felt earned. Branford is playing up to his brother by now, particularly on soprano sax features such as “For Wee Folks”, and the Kenny Kirkland/Jeff Watts conversation is at all times rippling and astonishing. Bassist Charnett Moffett is propulsive and spectacular too. And it might be the best jazz album ever to win the Best Jazz Instrumental Performance Grammy on top of all that.
Killer Tracks: “Delfeayo’s Dilemma”, and the muted trumpet/soprano sax loveliness of “Aural Oasis”
Notable Collaborators: Brother and saxophonist Branford Marsalis, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, and pianist Kenny Kirkland
Wynton-ian Moment: The trumpet solo on “Chambers of Tain” must have inspired a million young players to simply give up the instrument . . . and several thousand to pick it up and see what else is possible.
by Will Layman