Wynton Marsalis plays with prowess

After all the talk from and about Wynton Marsalis concerning the scope and nature of his influence on the state of jazz, it was a reaffirming pleasure to hear him at his most articulate with a trumpet in his mouth Monday at the Ted Mann Concert Hall in Minneapolis.

The mood Marsalis projected was relaxed and amiable as he cogently displayed his enormous musical prowess over the course of six songs and 55 minutes during his opening set. While he and his four sidemen were attired in suitcoats and ties, and invariably bowed in response to applause from the audience, their demeanor and their music both were imbued with a spirit of playfulness and unguarded emotion.

Part of this is due to the eminence Marsalis has earned and is now enjoying as an ambassador of jazz. He is easily recognizable, even to casual fans, and is assured of a prominent place among the historical luminaries in the jazz pantheon. Whatever career goals are left for him to attain are of his own choosing, and in recent years he has expanded his art to encompass more overt strains of blues, gospel, and the gumbo of musics from his native New Orleans. He has written a film score (the underrated “Tune In Tomorrow”), collaborated with a ballet troupe and refashioned a traditional church mass on his CDs. And he has continued to serve as a key link in the jazz lineage, educating young students of the music (Monday s program notes listed nineteen student groups in attendance) while resurrecting and honoring the careers of his forebears as musical director of the prestigious Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.

This whirlwind activity and level of achievement not to mention Marsalis’ renowned penchant for prickly opinions and doctrinaire conservatism with respect to jazz tradition have generated their share of controversy. But it also has given Marsalis a sense of satisfaction and maturity that was evident in the 33-year-old trumpeter’s performance.

After opening with a crisp reading of the obscure Thelonious Monk tune “Green Chimneys,” Marsalis grabbed a mute and embarked on his marvelous homage to New Orleans trumpeter Joe Oliver, entitled “In The Court Of King Oliver.” Sobbing and crying forth notes via the mute’s classic wah-wah effect, he slid easily into an unforced groove that mated blues and swing, eventually finishing with some nifty dynamics involving tone and volume.

Duke Ellington’s “Play The Blues And Go,” was highlighted by the warm instrumental repartee of Marsalis and Wessell Anderson, who seemed to re-create the blithe, buoyant spirit Ellington would occasionally weave on charts for his brass and reed sections.

Marsalis took a cappella passages to open and close George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.” Conveying wistful, weary emotions, his tone sharpened as the band entered. Then he took a note and curled it up the scale, adding a few hiccup-ing high notes to close his solo. It was a great mix of technical mastery and spontaneous innovation.

But the best was yet to come, as Marsalis simmered his way through two long solos on the fleet bop standard, “Cherokee.” The lightning-quick notes never slurred nor lost tonal definition as the trumpeter forged ahead with complex rhythmic fragments strung together for an even-handed melody. It was a brilliantly conceived deluge of ideas rendered with such smooth efficiency that it was almost self-effacing. It was also the best solo of the set.

Three of the four members of Marsalis’ group are new, and all acquit- ted themselves well. Pianist Loston Harris was a particular delight. He has the knack for creating his own sense of time, as if he could swing arhythmically if he wanted to. His solo on Monk’s “Green Chimneys” totally reordered the tempo, a gutsy move on the evening’s first song, but one that paid off and he gradually stoked the pace to a climax that meshed Monk’s skewed sensibility with his own conception. Later, on “Play The Blues And Go,” he emulated the soulful pianist Ahmad Ja-mal by alternating block chords and spare melodic passages.

The rhythm section of bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Ali Jackson Jr. was also distinctively supportive. Rogers is one of the few young bassists who eschews fancy fingerwork for a lush, radiant tone, best showcased on “In The Court Of King Oliver.” Jackson’s inspired brushwork engaged and goaded Marsalis with forceful aplomb on “Cherokee.”

Anderson, the veteran member of the group, is another story. He is a Cellular Phone On The Frits? You may find the office equipment you need under Merchandise in the Classified section of the Star Tribune. StarTribune large man, and the alto saxophone looks like a toy in his hands and you expect to hear him blow with harsh, high-pitched gusto. But Anderson’s forte is subtlety and his nature is gentle; he works best as an accompanist, his soloing often paling next to Marsalis’ torrent of ideas.

In the end, of course, it all comes back to Marsalis anyway. For the final tune of the set, he chose an achingly slow version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.” Playing trumpet is like riding a bicycle, in that it is difficult to go too slow without wavering and eventually falling off. But Marsalis’ solo was beautifully tenuous, reverently bluesy and full of innocent wonder.

By Britt Robson
Source: Star Tribune Minneapolis

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