Wynton Marsalis emerges full-blown

At 17, Wynton Marsalis of New Orleans was a year shy of the required age to play classical music at Tanglewood. Having performed the Haydn Trumpet Concerto with the New Orleans Philharmonic at 14 was impressive enough, but it took more than that to beat the rules and get into the prestigious festival.

It took composer Gunther Schuller and staff of the Berkshire Music Center to agree that Marsalis’s abilities were simply too large and promising to be confined by a tiny rule. Things went well: Marsalis won the festival’s Harvey Shapiro Award for Outstanding Brass Player, and a year later he entered Juilliard.

Marsalis, however, is not a classical musician.
Today, at 21, Wynton Marsalis of Brooklyn is the hottest thing on the jazz trumpet, a sort of wonder kid who promises to etch his place in the musical universe with the indelibility of Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. He’s long since dropped out of Juilliard “studying classical music doesn’t help you play jazz,” he says and gone on to release three albums, the last of which happens to be classical and all of them to considerable critical acclaim.

Voted best trumpeter last year

He has already played trumpet for Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (just as trumpet genius Clifford Brown did) and toured with a quartet comprising the most mature and uncompromising of today’s jazz artists: Ron Carter on bass, Herbie Hancock on piano, Tony Williams on drums. Last year he was voted best trumpet player in the Downbeat readers’ poll – miles ahead of Davis.

His current group is a quintet, which he will bring to Newark Symphony Hall Oct. 14 for a special benefit performance. It includes one of the better young tenor saxophonists around, Branford Marsalis (Wynton’s brother), as well as Kenny Kirkland on piano, Jeff Watts on drums, and Ray Drummond on bass. The concert, sponsored by Smirnoff Vodka and promoted to raise funds for a New Jersey resident’s full scholarship to Berklee College of Music, also will feature performances by the popular singer Roberta Flack and a rather seamless club group in jazz, song stylist Etta Jones and blues-inspired tenor saxophonist Houston Person.

Meteoric rises are not uncommon in the jazz world. But then speed and suddenness indeed, surprise have always been among the winning ingredients in jazz, and it seems Marsalis’s constellation is forming like a bursting cluster of sparkling’ sixteenth notes. The constellation won’t set or have a name for some time, of course, but it takes a while for an artist, even one as collected and focused as Marsalis, to form a complete musical voice.

“You grow as you go along,” he says. “I don’t understand these people who will play a record of mine and compare it to Miles [Davis] when he was in his forties. It takes years to sound that way. You’ve just got to feel a certain way about life, and when you’re young, a lot of times you don’t feel that way. I don’t feel that way.”

This, of course, robs nothing from the originality and feeling and brilliance in Marsalis’s music. He can take a note and give it a thin or a round shape in its tone, make it shiny and bell-like or keep it soft and breathy, blow it as a straight line or twist it into into a curlicue, caress with shy little one-beat statements or embrace with resounding directness.

From shouts to whispers

Marsalis’s very arrangement of the notes has an equally impressive range. His rendition of “Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me),” on his immensely successful debut album, ends with his unaccompanied horn repeating a three-note pattern that descends not only in scale but volume, making the period at the end of the musical sentence nothing more than a plaintive whisper. Great rhythmic surges and sudden shifts in volume, on the other hand, punctuate his tension-filled arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “Think of One,” the title tune of his second album.

His third album is a change of pace altogether, but no less brilliant for its content: It features Marsalis playing the trumpet concertos of Haydn, Hummel, and Mozart before the National Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Raymond Leppard Jr.

Marsalis’s real home is in jazz, however, for it is the idiom in which he tries to tell stories from his heart and his head by selecting musical notes that fit within a certain key and time signature and movement of fellow musicians. Doing that well means developing an authentic voice that creates art. And the subject of having an original style is a difficult one.

Is it the orangy tint of the paint or the look in his subjects’ eyes that makes Gauguin’s Polynesian visions all his? Is it a furious experiment in syntax that makes Thomas McGuane’s sentences ring? Is it a sense of movement something, even, that is invisible – that makes a Rodin sculpture so full of life?
What, indeed, makes Marsalis’s rendition of Ellington’s “Melancholia” so dark and so sad, so full of comprehension?

“You never know,” he says. “That’s what’s so beautiful about jazz. “What comes out of the horn is everything that influences you.”
Marsalis’s decision to make his art in jazz was made with considerable thought. He considers jazz in a class of its own not only musically but artistically:
“Classical music is in the past, and jazz is in the present. When you listen to a Beethoven symphony, Beethoven wrote that. What you’re hearing is the result of the creation. You don’t hear it as it was created; you hear a recreation of what was created.

“When you go and see a Shakespearean play, Shakespeare wrote that. Same thing. And if you go to a museum and see a work of art, it’s in the past.
“But when you go to a jazz concert, you hear creation. Instantly.
“Jazz is the first time in the history of Western art that the art form is in the present, and this is a major innovation in world art concepts. In fact, it’s a major thing in the history of art.”

Of course, a symphony is open for musical interpretation, just as a painting is reinvented each time it illuminates the life of a different viewer. But jazz doesn’t always begin with scores, and a song, played differently every time, is never fixed as a painting is.

Marsalis, dressed for this interview in a red San Francisco 49ers t-shirt with a gray leather shirt on top, has about him a certain professorial intensity. His pride that jazz is American is boundless and tempered only by the persistent racial stigma that jazz suffers: “The problem is that Charlie Parker was black, Duke Ellington was black, Thelonious Monk was black, John Coltrane was black. The greatest thinkers in Western art in the 20th century have been black people in America.”

He switches between classical and jazz within the same sentence: He talks freely about a recent visit to Michael Tilson Thomas’s apartment, where the pair decoded the “logic” of harmony in an atonal violin concerto for no other reason than to determine how the composer got from one chord to the next. Then he talks about jazz history, how Parker was “the finest person to live in the last 100 years,” not only because he built an entire jazz language from which clear musical theory could be extracted but because he was a decent man.

And then Wynton Marsalis hits upon his art dead-center what goes on in his head on the bandstand when he is making those moment-to-moment decisions about what notes to play, when to play them, what “color” to give them, and where they will fall in relation to what his band members are doing.
“A million things are going on [when we play],” he says. “I try to be as spontaneous as I .can, and be correct. To be correct means that it must be logical, or fit in the scheme of the music.

“The pianist will hit a chord, and that chord will get adjusted to another beat, and then the sound of what my brother plays [on saxophone] is different, which causes the bass player to do something different, and these moves might continue a chord constantly. So you have to hear the chord and develop it And the rhythm has to be really good.”

If the opportunities for artistic expression off the symphonic score are limited to interpretation, then Marsalis’s opportunities in jazz, being spontaneously compositional as well as interpretive, seem rather large and risky.

Endless practice

“You have to play jazz all the time, because it’s so difficult to play,” he says. “You’ve got to try to figure out what you’re doing, and then you have to try to figure out what the other people are doing.”
If this sounds a bit metaphysical, consider that in recent weeks Marsalis has been trying to figure out how he and his band can “rephrase the beats to tunes,” which he described with the snap of fingers and a recitation of a 4/4 beat, first without emphasis, and then with:

“Instead of playing
1 2 3 4
1 2 3 4
1 2 3 4
we are trying for
1 2 3 4
1 2 3 4
1 2 3 4
1 2 3 4
1 2 3 4
1 2 3 4

“What you’re doing now is playing with the fact that , the music is in motion. Jazz is music in motion.
“When you’re playing, you have ultimate control. But you don’t know what you’re going to play – until, right in the split second before you play it, you know what it is. it’s like talking.”

Tickets for the Wynton Marsalis concert are priced at $14, $12, and $10 through Chargit, Ticketron, Bamberger’s in Newark, and the Newark Symphony Hall box office.

By Leonard Reed
Source: The Record (Hackensack, New Jersey)

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