Wynton Marsalis: Adding It All To Jazz

WHEN THE Wynton Marsalis Septet visited Wolf Trap last August, the 31-year-old bandleader was easy to spot even from the lawn in his dazzling all-white suit. His trumpet was also easy to pick out with its diamond-sharp statements of melodic themes. It soon became clear, however, that his less-famous bandmates were essential to the exhilarating group improvisations, as they traded phrases with Marsalis as equals.

They were playing a 90-minute ballet score, “Citi Movement (Griot New York),” which Marsalis had written for Garth Fagan’s dance company. Even though it hadn’t been released at the time, the score’s accessible melody and urban energy elicited a warm response from the summer audience. Now that it has been released as a two-CD set on Columbia, the music lives up to its first impression with a surprising unity and consistency.

Such a major work would have sated many composers for several years, but Marsalis has already completed two more lengthy works. “In This House, On This Morning” was commissioned by New York’s Lincoln Center, where Marsalis is the jazz program’s artistic director, and was performed there last fall. This hour-long jazz suite in 12 sections mirrors the successive moods of a public religious service; it should be released on disc this summer. “Hopscotch Americana Suite (Six Syncopated Movements)” is the musical score for a Peter Martins ballet which premiered with the New York City Ballet in January; it should be released as a recording late this year or early next year.

Asked what draws him to such lengthy pieces, Marsalis gives an unexpected reply: “It’s fun,” he says. “Some encounters are meant to be short, but others you want to go on and on because they’re so enjoyable. That’s how it is in life, and that’s how it is in music, too. Long pieces are harder to organize, because they’re like novels compared to the song form, which is more like a poem. You have to concentrate a lot harder on what you’re doing, but when you can sustain that certain feeling for a long time, that’s fun.”

Of course, to pull off a longer piece, you have to have a stable band that’s willing to rehearse arrangements and willing to learn each other’s styles to the point where group improvisation becomes possible. And such stable bands have become a rarity in jazz. “Most people don’t want to work out arrangements,” Marsalis points out, “because it’s hard work. It requires a real investment of time and energy. Most people don’t even want to be in a band. They want to have their own band. I’m lucky, because I don’t have those sorts of ego problems in my group; we all feel it’s an achievement to be part of something more ambitious.”

The lack of long-term lineups in jazz forces the over-reliance on individual improvisation and the easy formula of unison theme, trumpet solo, sax solo, piano solo, unison theme. “That’s not a bad form,” Marsalis says. “We even use it ourselves sometimes, but I don’t understand why everything has to be played in that form. There are so many other forms: group improvisation, call and response, arrangements that sound like improvisation and so on.

“To play jazz now, in the ’80s and ’90s, you have to be able to play it comprehensively, to play all these forms. It’s easy to learn to play one aspect of jazz, to play like the set of records you liked growing up, but it takes a long time to play jazz, which contains many different aspects. Not many musicians are willing to take that time and do the hard work.”

Jazz, Marsalis argues, should be a process of adding forms and styles together. For too long, though, he says, African-American art has suffered from the illusion that the key was subtraction. “The whole notion that you have to take something away to create something new is a classical concept that’s not natural to jazz,” he insists.

“You can justify each stripping away with an intellectual reason: We stripped away harmony because chords are too confining; we stripped away melody because it’s too European; we stripped away swing because it obscures the rhythm; we stripped away melody because the world is not a romantic place anymore. After you strip away so much, there’s nothing left. We have to get back to something with substance. And I think we will. Like all great changes, it will be slow at first — one or two people here, then 15 or 20 there, then thousands, then millions — but individual rejection leads to collective rejection and then, bang, it happens before you know it.”

The stripping-away process, he says, has led to the same dead end in jazz as in classical music and pop music: chaotic individualism devoid of pleasure. “Jazz is the sound of a band,” Marsalis says emphatically. “The act of jazz is different people getting together and negotiating an agenda, of each person presenting ideas and the group coming to a consensus. That’s unprecedented in Western music.

“It’s a democratic music, because we all choose what we’re going to do, but we choose to do what will make everything else around us sound good. The goal is to avoid chaos and to make every other musician do his best. In fact, the more you encourage someone else’s freedom of expression and the more different that someone else is from you, the more democratic the act.”

THE WYNTON MARSALIS SEPTET — Appearing Saturday at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall and Monday at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore. To hear a Sound Bite from “Citi Movement (Griot New York),” call 202/334-9000 and press 8121.

By Geoffrey Himes
Source: The Washington Post

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