YOUNG MEN with the golden horns
Adept technicians or brilliant young masters? Cold fish or hot cats? RICHARD COOK suggests that the Marsalis brothers are more than the latest thing in tired old Jazz music.
SINCE IT fell into the Jazz coinage, we have marvelled at the name Marsalis. The two eldest sons of pianist Ellis, Branford and Wynton Marsalis have become the touchstone for jazz in the Eighties as a music that can be creative without compromise – and without sacrificing marketability. They are brilliant and successful young men. And they have attracted attention and debate like nobody since the most volatile periods of the public Miles Davis.
It seems like every time the jazz tradition is faced with extinction, along comes another dazzling young trumpeter. In 1981, we began hearing about a trim, well-dressed 19-year-old who’d taken the trumpet chair in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and was sparking that group more sensationally than anyone since the days of Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard. A few records offered some testimony to the story. Wynton Marsalis, born late in 1961, a slight, bespectacled figure with a particularly sly smile and a demeanour that mixed the streetwise with the studious mind, was insisting that a young man could play jazz and make it good, valuable and accessible.
It sounded at first like someone with a special facility for hard bop tempos and phrases – after all, Wynton was playing with the Messengers, hard bop’s premier graduation course. Listening to the typical set recorded on Keystone 3 (Concord) makes the point. Marsalis solos with the assertion and sure-footedness across the register that marked all his predecessors with Blakey. His moves have a rapid articulation that makes the scale crisp and bright; his phrases dart with a dancer’s grace. He finds air in the fastest tempos. “In Walked Bud” has him glancing off high peaks and sewing the solo together with longer note values that tense listener and player for the next spring. It isn’t glib, but it is facile – and it faithfully observes an instinctive hard bop syntax, a kind of finely compressed energy.
His trumpet tone was already intact – a small magnesium flare, smoothed free of anything voluptuous. It’s a craftsman’s tone rather than a technician’s. His attack was controlled but not as clean as it is now. It had its first serious outing in Wynton Marsalis, his swiftly recorded debut as leader.
Columbia signed Marsalis while he was still with the Messengers and recorded half the LP in New York, half in Japan. The teenager had already played a tour of the East with a stellar quartet including Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Ron Carter (enshrined in Quartet). This was someone already respected in heavy company. By the time he’d left Blakey and arrived in Britain to play a Ronnie Scott season with his own band in the summer of 1982, Marsalis mania had struck. The trumpeter was so hot that he seemed in danger of immolation before his 21st birthday.
Through it all, he kept imperturbably cool. I talked with him during that London season. Backstage, we could hear the busy strains of the fusion outfit that was playing support. “It’s OK,” he shrugged, scatting vaguely along with one of their lines. His glittering, half-amused smile told a different story. Why was he playing this music – which some were already calling revivalist in an era that had come to accept avant-garde shocks as commonplace?
“It’s the hardest music to play. I decided I wanted to do this because nobody else was really doing it. It’s something that’s going down the drain – the tradition is so great, but there’s so many misconceptions because of the nature of musicians and the conditions they have to play in. It was my duty to try and play this music, on the highest level I can play it on”.
He has become an infrequent interviewee – like all those whose public attention threatens to engulf their work – but Wynton’s pronouncements are distinguished by a steely certitude that can seem brusque, at least. Yet, of course, he can back up everything. When I sidled the term hard bop into the conversation, he pounced: “There wasn’t no be-bop licks in that set.”
Well … no, they weren’t played in a be-bop way, for sure. What was implicit about all this was not so much a romantic, pioneer kind or innovation – the only sort that most critics and listeners can recognise – but a concern to develop a whole new side to the discussion. Marsalis wasn’t just talking about playing new notes, or joining them up in different ways. He was (not unreasonably) setting a standard for an entirely fresh deal for the jazz musician.
This is an idea frightening to record companies, pundits and audiences alike. In the conspiracy to keep Jazz small, such vaulting ambition is dirty talk. It’s a threat to the status quo of inarticulacy. Good grief – our elitism is under siege!
SO FOR all the excitement generated by a musician whose best music is as exciting as any of that of his earlier peers, there’s been a mounting reaction of cautionary words against taking Marsalis too ‘seriously’ as the great hope. It’s one of those absurd ironies that cartwheel through the music. He was welcomed precisely because his work put its faith in the continuing strength of hard, melodic, pellucidly skilled jazz musicianship at a time when all forward movement supposedly lay with an increasingly marginalised Free school.
Whether he likes the tag hard bop or not, Marsalis plays in a manner that hard bop followers can warm to. Suddenly, as the aura around him eases a little and he settles into a steadier period of maturing, the applause seems much more grudging. Marsalis hasn’t turned the cosmos on its ass: so now people are calling him too chilly, too clever, too lacking in that magical lustre of soul.
Marsalis would have a good answer to that. His dialectical chops are in very good shape. Back to 1982 for a moment. “There are people who believe that jazz is not an academic music. What I have to tell them is that once a tradition is established, an academy has to go along and support and develop it. My technique has come from studying that tradition. If you say you want to play something new, that doesn’t sound like anyone else, then that’s what you’ll sound like – nothin’.”
One is reminded of Cecil Taylor’s remark to Valerie Wilmer – “Each man is his own academy.” In the Marsalis academy, technique is the doorway to all areas or expression. ‘Sad’ is a word he loves to use, as a gently cruel fingering of deficient technique. But the point about Marsalis’s still-incipient authority is that we don’t cringe under his technique the way we do when faced with Corea or Brecker. If Marsalis is still short of being a full-grown stylist, his gifts are touched by a reserve unusual in one so precocious.
His records as a leader offer no rampage into unexplored heights. As his sound is sometimes reminiscent of the young Miles Davis, so his first CBS albums partake of the atmosphere of Davis’s early Blue Notes, a thoughtful, symmetric purchase of subtle harmonies and discreet shadings.
“Waterfalls” from the Keystone 3 set is a prototype taste of his writing: a theme that sets up a big climax which is eschewed for a quiet drop. It’s a favorite device. In themes like “Father Time”, “The Bell Ringer” and “Hesitation” Marsalis writes lines that glide with debonair ease, every emphasis finely paced. Improvisations move out of the bifurcated horn parts without having to be marked solo here.
One expects decoration, yet there’s actually little. Nor is there much of the grandstanding associated with hard bop. Sixteenth notes appear as a peppering amid very unfrantic designs. The surface impression is of a link with Davis’s ESP group, but where Miles and Shorter empathised on the most abstruse planes, the Marsalis brothers converse much more directly. The leader ensures that every part is chiselled.
Wynton Marsalis and Think Of One are consequently a little cool in form, and there is more flamboyant Marsalis elsewhere: on the Fathers And Sons record with dad Ellis, where the trumpeter finds an almost garrulous fire in “Twelve’s It”, and the sometimes meandering Quartet collection, where he has his best opportunity to stretch out – and shows a tendency to use startling fillips when he’s unsure where to take a solo. All the same, those two ‘leader’ records are statements of roled power which are breathtaking for one of his age and experience. The way he plays some phrases is imperious, even haughty in its confidence: and it’s superb jazz trumpet.
It’s also a music that’s civilised to the point where all these charges of coldness come marching in. Wynton’s style is ineffable in its discretion: he just won’t play the crowd-pleasing attack which is supposed to be a black trumpeter’s legacy. He keeps questioning the rules.
Like – we’re conditioned to new stars cutting discs by the handful. Marsalis’s jazz records since leaving Blakey have been few in number (three under his own name in three years). Jazzmen are used to whatever recording conditions are thrown together; his LPs are carefully balanced recordings, quality mixes (admittedly he records for a very big company). Marsalis apparently sees no paradox between digital sound and sharp, substantial music.
This kind of attitude adds up to somebody who is, as suggested earlier, a dangerous commodity: a hip, talented, extraordinarily aware black artist. Worse still, he has the inclination to crack the classical world too. Two albums in the concerto repertoire have an interpretive ebullience that’s as thrilling as any of his jazz work. It might seem like a hankering after respectability if Marsalis weren’t so damn good. Listen to the tingling cadenza he constructs for the Allegro of the Haydn Concerto. The calm way he sets about all this work goes still further against stereotypes – the hedonistic spiral of the romantic’s ‘jazz life’ hardly seems to touch him. It certainly doesn’t colour the music.
That’s why, perhaps, his treatments of “My Ideal” and “Who Can I Turn To” seem callow. It’s not that he is immature as a ballad player (or, presumably, immune to heartbreak), more that the open-faced nostalgia of such tunes is alien to a player who prefers his sensuality to be fine-spun. In his most recent LP (a new CBS album is due shortly), Hot House Flowers, he faces what was once an obligatory test for a great soloist: the strings album. It happens that the arrangements intrude on some of his most adventurous playing. He treats “I’m Confessin’” – still best remembered as a classic vehicle for Louis Armstrong – with the kind of cavalier swagger that’s supposed to be beyond him and still pulls it into the Marsalis universe of well-chosen words.
HIS BROTHER Branford, senior by one year, has until recently garnered much less attention. He began as an alto player, joining Blakey a year after Wynton in place of Bobby Watson. Alter Watson’s nagging, vinegary style, Branford seems bright but thin-blooded. His solo in “In Walked Bud” manages to start out rather like Lee Konitz. He switched to tenor and soprano and joined his brother’s band with pianist Kenny Kirkland: it was that unit that visited London in 1982. In this group, Branford plays as a detailed and slightly cantankerous foil to his brother. His solos have less or Wynton’s instantaneous ingenuity, more of a droll though unsmiling reserve; but when he digs in, the elder Marsalis sometimes outswings his leader. He offers no great personal stamp on the records by the band, and it’s his own debut Scenes In The City which announces his gifts best.
In some ways this is a darker, more diverse world than Wynton proposes In his music. The opening “No Backstage Pass”, an improvised tenor blues, sounds like a stab at Rollins virtuosity, and its big circumlocutions are exciting without leading away from stasis. “Scenes In The City” is a Mingus melodrama where the music is strictly programmatic. The rest is more pointed. “Solstice”, a Coltrane inspiration, has the tenorman inverting the old master’s approach by fattening out his tone and burrowing down to a few elemental phrases as the music progresses. “No Sidestepping” has the same kind or feel, a lounging, slightly lachrymose quality that piles a fearsome weight onto basically light gestures. There’s a mordant air to this music. On soprano, he gallops through an original called “Waiting For Tain” and saunters dolefully along the funereal “Parable”.
Branford doesn’t sound much like Wayne Shorter, as has been suggested, but he seems to have something of Shorter’s deathly obliquity.
If his music frowns more than his brother’s, Branford is less harsh about his choices of environment than Wynton. A run of work as a sideman has culminated in an appearance on Sling’s LP The Dream Of The Blue Turtles. If you saw any of the Live-Aid marathon, you probably saw Branford piping a few desultory soprano obligatos dunng the Sting/Phil Collins set. On the Turtles LP he offers some intelligent but perfunctory embellishments to a dull collection of songs. It’s hardly auspicious work, and this kind of crossover is no longer so novel. What Wynton thought about it has not, to my knowledge, been recorded.
It certainly isn’t the kind of project the trumpeter would countenance. The most complete account of his current views emerges in a dialogue with Herbie Hancock conducted by Musician magazine. Marsalis there proposes a devastating critique of how writers and business alike cannot accept that “soul and emotion are part of technique”. The force of his arguments resembles the impregnable justifications which are coming to typify his playing – and his argument here is, indeed, virtually unanswerable: “If somebody wants to say anything that has any kernel of intellect, immediately the word ‘elitist’ is brought out and brandished across the page to whip them back into ignorance. Especially black artists and athletes. We are constantly called upon to have nothing to say. I’m just trying to raise questions about why we as musicians have to constantly take into account some bullshit to produce what we want to produce as music.”
This anger is delivered cold, and it stings the more powerfully because it’s too rational to deny. Just as we can’t pigeonhole the emotions raised by Marsalis in his music there’s no obvious joy, venom or laughter. He insists on the abstract powers of music to convey something different, something more profound than the accustomed triggers of happy/sad.
The Marsalis brothers are doing something more than forming the next rung on the ladder of the tradition. Their frame of reference is built around a greater aspiration than being a latest thing. It’s a method that incorporates raising the whole level of conversation, to a point where imponderables like technique, feel and emotion are subsumed into a fresh, maybe even a visionary understanding of what a music’s all about. That’s why – apart from the matter of their making some marvellous music – we should be glad they’re doing what they’re doing.
And I didn’t even mention those suits.
by Richard Cook
Source: The WIRE