Wynton Marsalis’s Glancing Blow

Back in 1970 Miles Davis provided music for a documentary on Jack Johnson, the African American boxer who reigned during the first two decades of the past century. The result sounded like Miles Davis music circa 1970 — funky, brashly electric and defiantly anachronistic.

Thirty-four years later, Wynton Marsalis has scored a new Johnson documentary: “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson” by director Ken Burns, which will air on PBS next month. The result, as heard on the CD release, sounds mainly like a job of work.

Which, in the case of a Ken Burns documentary, fits the bill just right.

Given the task of providing music that evokes the early 20th century, Marsalis turns in a score that hits all the right historical notes, summoning pre-modern jazz textures from the various small to medium-size ensembles at his disposal. Burns’s films shy away from ambiguity as a narrative strategy; conjuring up era-appropriate moods is what he’s best at, and what you hear must always match the context.

Davis’s music, or that of any composer who stepped outside the timeline of the subject matter, would never have worked with this literal-minded director. But in his old buddy Marsalis, another artist with a clear-cut aesthetic, Burns found the perfect collaborator for his Johnson tale.

In one sense, Marsalis’s original compositions are generally unmistakable. We know they’re from his pen simply because we can so quickly identify his sources of inspiration. Marsalis the composer is the ultimate fan; he adores and respects Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, John Coltrane, Davis and other key jazz figures to such a degree that he allows their unique sounds to bleed freely through the mesh of his own music.

Marsalis has long been adept at atmospheric writing that evokes the Southern roots of jazz. Thus, echoes of Morton and Armstrong and other appropriate early jazz and blues strains infuse the Johnson score. An old hand at this kind of thing, the star trumpeter even cannibalizes himself to flesh it out: Of the 21 shortish tracks — the majority of which run under 21/2 minutes — four performances have already been released on two earlier 1999 Marsalis recordings, “Reeltime” and “Mr. Jelly Lord.” (Marsalis doesn’t handle all the writing, either: Three Morton tunes and three early standards find their way in.)

Marsalis doesn’t make it easy for us to separate the utilitarian from the inspired, but hard listening unearths worthy items. While clumps of original tunes and performances present themselves as far too anonymously professional, there are others that reveal the hand of a skilled composer-arranger and enthused musicians, among them “Rattlesnake Tail Swing” (from “Reeltime”) with its six clarinets and piano chart, the stark “Trouble My Soul,” and the slide guitar-informed “What Have You Done?”

Marsalis’s “Unforgivable Blackness” may not have the enduring fascination of Miles Davis’s Jack Johnson score, but in the meantime, it gets the job done.

Wynton Marsalis is scheduled to appear Dec. 10 and 11 at the Lincoln Theatre with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the Boys Choir of Harlem.

In scoring Ken Burns’s documentary on boxer Jack Johnson, Marsalis used plenty of early jazz and blues.

By Steve Futterman
Source: The Washington Post

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