WYNTON MARSALIS / “Wynton Live”
Wynton Marsalis needs no introduction. He is undoubtedly the most recognized name in contemporary jazz. He has more Grammy Awards than any jazz musician living or deceased. (He also has Grammy Awards for classical music.) And the roll call of honors goes on and on: cover of Time Magazine, prestigious music commissions, accolades, a Pulitzer Prize, and other awards too numerous to mention.
But he is also a controversial musician whom some regard as too opinionated, and others think him too conservative, especially with regard to his definitions of what is and isn’t jazz. One knock from some jazz insiders is that he is all technique and very little emotion and innovation.
Although he has recorded copiously, I find myself returning to his live recordings for the most part, especially on those sessions where he is less strict and more spontaneous. There are only five selections on this Wynton Live Mixtape and yet it’s over an hour and a half long. Indeed, the last song (“In The Sweet Embrace Of Life”) clocks in at 55-minutes; and it’s worth every second.
Wynton is no longer a young a lion—he was born October 18, 1961 in New Orleans—but I believe he is playing better jazz than he ever has. The opening track demonstrates how he has matured as a ballad player. He no longer plays with pristine precision. Now he is just as likely to employ smears and off-kilter phrasing. What he does with “You Don’t Know What Love Is” is more lusty than romantic, more a deep declaration of carnality rather than a hapless lover lost in heartbreak. Needless to say, I find this fascinating because it sounds so unlike the younger Wynton Marsalis.
The aforementioned marathon concluding track (“Sweet Embrace”) is a tour de force of writing as well as performance. I love the band’s singing at the end precisely because it is what it is: instrumentalists doing shout choruses just like the old bands used to do. Not many ensembles could pull off this strenuous workout with both the technical expertise and the emotional sincerity (and joy) that flows from these guys.
But for me the real eye-opener (really that should be “ear-opener”) are the three middle tracks taken from Wynton’s new album, From Billie Holiday To Edith Piaf: Live In Marciac, which includes a DVD in addition to the audio CD. It’s a band of young cats channeling styles from earlier eras. Two pianists are listed on the credits and since I haven’t seen the DVD, I can’t tell you which pianist it is that nails that Erroll Garner thing on “Sailboat In The Moonlight” but outside of Mr. Garner himself very few pianist even attempt that approach. The band swings so hard, you’ll get vertigo just nodding your head to the rhythm.
Also, I need to give special kudos to saxophonist/clarinetist Walter Blanding whose sound is both robust and seriously smooth, not like in smooth jazz, more like in aged cognac—that shit will knock you out. There is a raucous edge in this band’s sound that tips you off that these cats ain’t just playing at playing jazz. They sound like they getting married to the music til death do them part.
What is distinctive is that they don’t come off like they’re trying to play in an old style. Naw, they sound like they are having a ball and that’s just the way they play except young musicians don’t get to this level of swing-ability by luck. In fact, this particular set reminds me of some of the old New Orleans sit down bands, playing in what I call the Buddy Bolden mold, i.e. swinging hard, full of blues and playing like this is the last time they will ever get to play. But there is more, this concert of material associated with Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf also includes special guest accordionist Richard Galliano who more than holds his own.
When Galliano and Marsalis go head to head, their solos both intertwining and challenging each other, it is a masterful display. I’ve heard a lot of accordion (what some people call “the poor man’s organ”) but this is the first cat I could envision playing modern jazz of this caliber as a soloist. But you’ve got ears, you can hear that for yourself.
My final note is about Wynton’s take on “Strange Fruit.” This shit is the bomb-digity. My man tears into this oration with nary a nod to propriety. At some points he sounds like he is going to hurt something… or hurt someone. In fact, if you used this one for a blindfold test, most people would never guess Wynton Marsalis. And that’s the beauty: Wynton has gone beyond the limitations of young Wynton.
I know the common misconception is that artists grow more conservative as they grow older. I don’t think that’s the case with artists. Entertainers, for sure end up merely trying to recapture bygone glory, but true artists keep reaching and as they grow older they have a wider palette of experiences to draw on.
These middle three tracks are enough to convince me. If you’ve only heard young Wynton you really haven’t heard Wynton. He’s playing with more than technique, here is the authority that only time can bring. Weathering the vicissitudes of life has given him more texture and timbre, a wider range of emotional dynamics; there is both more seriousness and more joy to Wynton Marsalis’ whole approach.
This is the kind of music that makes you want to shout: oh, hell yeah, play that shit!
Enjoy the new sound of a mature Wynton Marsalis.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Live At The House Of Tribes (recorded 2002)
01 “You Don't Know What Love Is”
From Billie Holiday to Edith Piaf (recorded 2008)
02 “Sailboat In The Moonlight”
03 “L'homme A La Moto”
04 “Strange Fruit”
Live At The Village Vanguard (recorded 1990 - 1994)
05 “In The Sweet Embrace of Life”
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