Wynton Marsalis Presents His Spin on World of Jazz

“Jazz,” Wynton Marsalis says in the opening scenes of Bravo’s “South Bank Show,” “prizes individuality. It teaches you how to project your personality, and how to discover the positive and negative things about yourself.”

The much-heralded trumpeter, composer and bandleader—surely the most visible jazz musician in the country—makes the remarks while seated in the back of a car, heading for a rehearsal.

“It also,” he adds, with a slight grin, “puts the responsibility on you to figure out how to put your individuality in the context of a group.”

And it is that tension between individual expression and ensemble interaction—one of jazz music’s vital energy sources—that keeps recurring throughout an absorbing musical documentary that uses Marsalis’ creative activities and philosophical thoughts to make some telling points about the importance of jazz in American society.

The first half of the hour long show is shot in black and white, blending stark visions of Manhattan with music from such Marsalis compositions as Citi Movement and In This House on This Morning. But the more fascinating scenes are devoted to preparations for the recording of Marsalis’ most ambitious work thus far, Blood on the Fields, which is scheduled for release later this year.

The composition resonates with Ellington-esque timbral associations, without ever losing its identity as an articulation of Marsalis’ vivid musical imagination. In the rehearsal, we are given an engaging view of the way in which talented young jazz players sublimate their individual creative impulses into a group expression.

Marsalis is relaxed and humorous, and the musicians are loose and easygoing, occasionally dancing spontaneously to the sounds of the shifting rhythms. Singers Jon Hendricks and Cassandra Wilson make cameo appearances, and there are solos and commentaries by such longtime Marsalis colleagues as saxophonist Wessell “Warmdaddy” Anderson, drummer Herlin Riley and bassist Reginald Veal.

The second half of the profile transforms to color as the locale moves to New Orleans, Marsalis’ birthplace. Here, we see him rehearsing with a smaller group, exploring music—notably by Jelly Roll Morton and Thelonious Monk—that illustrates the musical threads connecting the long history of jazz.

Marsalis plays piano and sings the blues, rips through Morton’s “Smokehouse Blues” and manages to toss in shrewd definitions of “improvisation,” “blues” and “swing.” Swinging, he explains, means playing “in the center of the music . . . you play inside the pulse.”

Working with a brisk editing touch and a profusion of attractive musical segments, producer-director Susan Shaw maintains constant interest, illuminating jazz in a way not often seen in the documentary format. Best of all, she not only has captured the articulate and professional side of Marsalis but also has revealed sensitive and insightful aspects of his character that have, in his previous television appearances, been too rarely observed.

  • “The South Bank Show: Wynton Marsalis” airs at 7 tonight and repeats at 1 a.m. Tuesday on Bravo.

by Don Heckman
Source: Los Angeles Times

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