Young Musicians Find A Future in the Past

The trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who is 29 years old, was the seasoned elder at Avery Fisher Hall on Saturday’s double bill of Mr. Marsalis’s septet and Jazz Futures, an alliance of musicians in their 20’s.

In the 1980’s, Mr. Marsalis became an exemplar of and spokesman for what he saw as the pinnacle of the jazz tradition: the rigorous small-group jazz of the late 1950’s and early 60’s, performed in jacket and tie. Since his uncompromising jazz proved commercially viable, other young jazz musicians have garnered national exposure. Yet Mr. Marsalis is a step ahead of his contemporaries. As his improvisations have grown from studied to songful, he has become one of the most inventive composers and meticulous band leaders in jazz.

Mr. Marsalis no longer confines himself to hard-bop. He now takes cross sections of jazz history, from the improvised polyphony of traditional New Orleans jazz (with Todd Williams switching from tenor saxophone to clarinet) to Louis Armstrong’s rumba-laced struts to Duke Ellington’s piquant close-harmony wind arrangements to 1960’s modal jazz. His touchstone is the blues, which reappears in basic and elaborate forms. Instead of routine theme-solos-theme structures, his pieces have themes, interludes, key changes and style changes interspersed with the solos.

“Pedro’s Getaway,” from Mr. Marsalis’s score for the film “Tune In Tomorrow” ( Columbia ), pushed and pulled with droll syncopations, convened the horns for dense chords, set up a call-and-response between tiptoeing saxophones and cackling brass, and encompassed a bluesy trombone solo by Wycliffe Gordon and a leisurely, tuneful alto saxophone solo by Wes Anderson. “Louisiana,” based on “Back Home Again in Indiana,” moved in a brisk unison, then suddenly sent horn lines cartwheeling in all directions.

As a soloist, Mr. Marsalis has lately been exploring what he can do with mutes. In “The Seductress,” he used a plunger mute, generally employed for comic effects, to stroke and curl notes in ways that sounded heartfelt and luminous. And in the modal “Majesty of the Blues” he bent his high notes into cries like Muslim calls to prayer. Meanwhile, his septet — which also includes Reginald Veal on bass, Farid Barron on piano and the deft, articulate Herlin Riley on drums — made Mr. Marsalis’s vision of the jazz legacy sound poised and comfortable.

In Jazz Futures, the future sounded a lot like 1964. The group didn’t break new ground; it played modal tunes, hard-bop and standards in theme-solos-theme blowing sessions that conjured elders: John Coltrane, Ray Bryant, Clifford Brown. Still, Jazz Futures is an all-star group in the making, with an assertive rhythm section — Carl Allen juggling cross-rhythms on drums, Christian McBride riffing hard on bass, Benny Green dispensing gospelly block chords on piano — and soloists who know how to create drama.

Roy Hargrove on trumpet stood out with a melting version of “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” and Mark Whitfield on guitar, wearing an electric-blue suit, revitalized Wes Montgomery’s lucid single-note lines, blues phrasing and convoluted chords. Antonio Hart on alto saxophone and Tim Warfield on tenor saxophone built from calm exposition to squealing peaks, while Marlon Jordan on trumpet relied on the bravura of flutter-tonguing and high notes. While the music played by the rules, its respect didn’t make it tame. And its musicians have plenty of time to push further; they’re young.

by Jon Pareles
Source: The New York Times

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