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Review: Wynton Marsalis Quintet

Wynton Marsalis. Portrait by William Ellis. All Rights Reserved

Wynton Marsalis Quintet
Ronnie Scott’s , 19th August 2011, fourth night of five. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

By the end of tonight (Saturday’s) show, the Wynton Marsalis Quintet will have played two houses a night this week for five nights, a total of ten shows. The entire run sold out within a few days of opening for booking back in May. The quintet have not just been doing the advertised shows. They’ve been participating in the Late Late Show. And I hear there was one surprise guest with th band one night, a rare appearance by clarinettist Bob Wilber, who makes his home in Oxfordshire, but whom Marsalis works in New York: he brought Wilber in to be artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Benny Goodman centenary tribute.

What stays in these ears and this mind from the Marsalis’ quintet performance is the level and pace of communication, within the band and with the audience. Every melodic goody, every rhythmic challenge thrown out gets responded to somewhere in the band. Bassists often have the most watchful eyes, and Carlos Henriquez, from the Bronx, an alumnus of Tito Puente’s band, misses nothing. He locked into a couple of duets with Wynton, but was very often dovetailing ideas with 25-year old Treme-featured New Orleans pianist Jonathan Batiste.

Batiste has astonishing keyboard facility and improbably long fingers. He bagged the applause for a solo on Lady Be Good in the style of Art Tatum, and went straight on to do another, equally characterful and purely pianistic, in the style of Thelonious Monk.

With drummer Ali Jackson the communication comes with a lot of joy humour, semaphored by his pitch dark eyebrows. He keeps unbelievably crisp time, and the trickery – notably an entertaining look-no-drums two-stick chorus at the beginning of the set.

The quiet man, the exception in the band is Walter Blandings Jr. Eyes often closed or looking into the distance, he seemed to take time to come into his own, but he did so mainly as instigator for Marsalis to respond to. And he gave as good as he got on What a Little Moonlight Can Do, taken at a speed of which a policeman might say: ” Yo’re not so much driving fast as flying low.”

And then there’s Marsalis. The enjoyment, the fun come from professionalism, intent and organization. I’m told the band didn’t just sound-check on arrival in London, but had full rehearsals. He was also playing almost purely acoustically, allowing the audience to hear his sound from different directions. He gave a lot of variety. A blues-soaked version of Comes Love had him on plunger mute and growling, the semiquavers were flowing at great speed on What a Little Moonlight.

The programme I heard  was – I’m told this was not typical at all – mostly older standards, the only new composition being Marsalis’ own modal march Free To Be. The concentration on the old sets me thinking….

And what I think is thank God for Wynton Marsalis. He does have the presence, the visibility to bring jazz onto the radar of London’s culture writers. The arts editor of one weekly magazine which last covered jazz with a review of one gig from the 2009 London Jazz Festival  mentioned on Twitter  on Thursday that he was in Ronnie’s this week. Another arts feature writer who did this hatchet job on ALL contemporary jazz  a few years ago (perhaps his opinion has changed?) was also on a red bench tonight.

While in most countries of the world the centrality of jazz to the music of our time is a given, in Britain, culture editors for their own convenience package it as an quaint, marginal, irrelevant legacy activity. And perhaps this desperately myopic vision can be reinforced by venturing out to hear Wynton?

As I hope this site proves every day of the year, they are wrong, wrong, wrong.

www.ronniescotts.co.uk

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17 replies »

  1. 'Hear, Hear!' to the last two paragraphs, and great to hear how good Marsalis is in Ronnies, despite occasionally being (mistakenly) cast as a jazz 'conservative'.

  2. I am reluctant to re-open old debates, but I think its important to state the opposing view to this.

    I completely recognise the skill and virtuosity of Wynton's playing – probably the best there is of his genre.

    I'm much less relaxed about your positioning of him as a saviour of jazz, as the way to bring jazz into the mainstream media.

    For me Wynton's approach to jazz is doctrinaire and rooted in the past. His view of jazz, stated very publicly, is that it can only be rooted in the African-American experience of blues and swing.

    I see this as a retrograde and very old-fashioned approach. Wynton has no truck with European jazz that comes from European experience, or even with American Jazz that stretches the boundaries of the music.

    So, if you want jazz to be seen, a bit like classical music, as an artform where we are all required to follow the guidelines of the past, then yes – that will be an acceptable message to the mainstream media. But its not the jazz I listen to, and its not a message to attract new young listeners.

    In the end you have to decide if you want jazz to be a celebration of the past, or an engagement with the 21st century. We should be able to have both – but Wynton only gives us one.

  3. Very much agree with Peter.

    Also agree with Sebastian about the feature writers.

    There is a danger that the writers and the public at large pick up on Marsalis' US-focussed historicist doctrine, and perpetuate the myth that contemporary British jazz simply doesn't exist.

    However, surely the only thing any of us can do is try our hardest to get our own music on to the radar. We shouldn't be sour that Wynton is incredible at doing just that.

  4. Thank you Anon 1, Peter and Jack.

    I think we are all coming at this from a similar direction, recognizing the strength and the diversity of the music, and impatient with those with a tendency to either a) dismiss it as not worthy of attention and/or b) stereotype it, lazily, as being past its sell-by date.

    One thing the review omitted to do was to single out a super pre-Wynton set from Tom Cawley, Sam Burgess and Pedro Segundo. There was a kind of competition going on to achieve quietness and weightlessness of sound, [articularly under Sam's bass solos. And the Friday night audience was spellbound by it.

    I would go and hear Tom – Gwilym Simcock's former teacher, Peter Gabriel's Musical Director incidentally – just about any night of the week. Maybe he found some new fans capable of trusting their ears (rather than their PRs) last night??

  5. Sold out by the time I tried to buy a ticket… It must be all the literati getting out to their one jazz gig of the year!

    It sounds like a great gig, though. I sometimes find Marsalis a bit overblown – so much respect for the tradition the band doesn't catch alight. Not last night, though – sorry to miss it!

  6. Wynton is such a fantastic trumpet player, i laud his approach to the Americanism of jazz, as it comes from the Afro American experience, and where it came from..something that Europeans really cant relate to, as they were the people perpetrating the suffering in the new world. He indeed is sold out on the Afro American experience of jazz and this can lead to problems..especially as he is just so good as a trumpeter; sublime articulation, a tone only eclipsed by Miles', but so nice a personality. I agree with those who mock the consumerism he has built up for himself but the European jazz ideal is only part of the story of instrumental music. European jazz is sometimes detached from that feel good audience factor (kind of a generalisation) but theres a kernal of truth there. I guess Wynton does get a lot of young listeners into the music, and im sure young audiences love the sounds he makes, but i agree some of his later stuff may turn others off. I think really the best thing to listen to his the expression of his playing and his image, which to any onlooker, is just arresting.

  7. Alexander Hawkins has written in by email

    I would have to say that Marsalis is a wonderful trumpet player. And sure, I have enjoyed much of his playing – the very early stuff with Blakey certainly, and also the Black Codes era, etc.

    However, I would also contend that he completely misunderstands the tradition, as it exists for jazz musicians (though he undoubtedly understands it in the terms of what we could call 'repertory' musicians).

    One of the central traditions of jazz is innovation – I think this much is uncontroversial. The great musicians (although with more time, I'd elaborate on this too, as the 'great man' view – and 'man' it usually is in the caricature – of this music is misleading, and far too individualistic in what has essentially always been a communal form) of the music have never made anything like Wynton's attempt to recreate the music of the past. In fact, their enterprise has been entirely different, and we tend to lionise them precisely because they have brought a new 'thing' to the form. So in this sense, absolutely the least true one can be to the tradition is to copy the soundworlds of the past. What is special about (for instance) Clifford Brown is that he sounded like Clifford Brown, and no-one else. The essence of what made him 'him' was that he developed his own sound – of course heavily indebted to the past, but undeniably of its time. So for me, to honour the essence of what makes the masters masters is to adopt their methodology – that it, be yourself at all costs – rather than their direct soundworld, which strikes me as superficial, and missing the point in a rather significant way.

    What Marsalis' didactic/doctrinaire/dogmatic approach has done has been to marginalise whole swathes of the history of our music which are true to the imperative to INNOVATE – since where there is a 'correct/approved' way, there's also the necessary 'incorrect' corollary… I don't think this is a US vs. Europe issue as such (in certain cases, it may incidentally be one, however). The Marsalis view disregards a massive and wonderful body of African-American art too. Let's just limit the list to trumpet players, to play on his home turf: Wadada Leo Smith, Bill Dixon, Lester Bowie, Don Cherry are just 4 otherwise-major names which are marginalised from the conventional, Lincoln Center-derived narratives. Or let's consider the big band tradition, another one which Marsalis claims: Sun Ra (Marsalis should have more time for him, Ra having been in Fletcher Henderson's organisation), Braxton, etc.

    [Comment continues]

  8. [Alexander Hawkins' comment continues]

    Granted that there has been a Lincoln Center Ornette project, but I don't think anyone could argue that this is indicative of their agenda; and after all – what of Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell, Cecil Taylor – all, incidentally, LIVING masters, and, to play to the central case, Americans.

    So – to summarise – I agree, Marsalis is an extremely good trumpeter. He has a post-bop language that is the equal of most (though I think in earlier styles he convinces me less, and in particular his mute work can be a bit hokum – strikes me that someone like Lester Bowie, or, to name a member of the younger generation, Taylor Ho Bynum, is much more convincing in the post-Ellington-section continuum). He undoubtedly has wonderful technique. I really enjoy his Haydn and his Hummel. His playing with Blakey in particular I think is often spectacular. Some of his leader stuff, circa Black Codes, but later also – similarly so. I have absolutely no problem whatesoever with the run at Ronnies, or indeed him gigging anywhere, and on the contrary, had I been in town, would have been really keen to hear him live again.

    But – I believe that his concept of tradition is utterly superficial, and one which, ironically, has absolutely no major precedent within the tradition he claims to champion as far as I'm aware.

    Usually, I would struggle to get hot under the collar about the views of a musician like Marsalis. For sure I disagree with him, but variety/spice and all that. However, I think where as artists we need to speak out is in cases such as this where one person (Marsalis) and his clique (Crouch etc.) and institutional voice/backer (Lincoln Center) wields so much power over the music, its dissemination and funding.

  9. I don't think that winning nine grammys is an easy achievement,at all and that deserves some musical kudos. He has achieved a lot, and brought a lot of attention to jazz. I could take issue with a few points, e.g Wynton is actually a fan of Don Cherry, but really, its his playing that means you just have to pay attention..isn't that important? I think in jazz, people sometimes forget what music is all about; communication, and Wynton does that perfectly well..talking about funding; a bit rich for some jazz organisations in the uk to get angry at Lincoln centre when they are wielding similarly debilitating power to some of musical life in this country! And that includes jazz!! (James Smythe)

  10. Much interesting debate here, but really wanted to loudly second LondonJazz comment about the trio first set. We were there on Saturday and it was Jeremy Brown with Tom and Pedro. They were stunning, playing incredibly quietly and you could hear a pin drop in a packed club. Top drawer stuff.

  11. As for inspiring new listeners, Wynton became an instant hero to my 13 year old daughter who was utterly spellbound hearing him last year in Birmingham. Now she knows why she plays the trumpet!

  12. Yes, true – in fairness, I should have tried to stress that more above – I can totally see that he's an inspiration too for children…in fact I remember seeing him on tv with Michael Tilson Thomas in the late 80s I guess it would have been (making me 7 or 8!), and really loving the guy. So completely – he needs credit for that.

    James – I don't think we're disagreeing – absolutely, I agree that music is about communication, and for sure, he does that well…my problem is much more to do with his attitude to 'other' jazz. He's acting as a gatekeeper – telling us what is and isn't valid – rather than saying – 'look at this wonderful, deep range of musics we call jazz', making people aware of all of these musics, and letting *them* work out whether the music speaks to them or not!

  13. Alex, absolutely! Your assertion of the freedom to follow one's ears and to make one's own choices in music is spot on.

    But I don't necessarily hold Wynton responsible as the gatekeeper – at least in this country.

    Cultural commentators, whose full time role is to act as arbiters of quality in “the arts” should, surely, be able to absorb more of this music seriously, rather than give it the occasional patrician gaze from up high on Parnassus, the lazy reductive cliché.

    A couple of extracts from the coverage of Wynton have rather got my rebellious goat this morning:

    – New Statesman: (in its first live jazz review since Nov 2009) mentions “the transition from concert hall to sweaty club.”

    – Adam Sweeting in the Telegraph: “No musical moulds were shattered, and atonal shrieking was conspicuous by its absence.”

    Sources:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/worldfolkandjazz/8707269/Wynton-Marsalis-Ronnie-Scotts-review.html

    http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/cultural-capital/2011/08/marsalis-orleans-boy-batiste

  14. Fair point – I think his influence is more marked in the US, at least the pejorative influence I was talking about!

    The 'sweaty club' reference brings to mind Braxton's idea of the 'reality of the sweating brow' – this peculiar fetishising of a certain image of jazz, making implicit judgments about the best place to hear it, perhaps also about its relative cultural worth, etc. etc…

    Actually – I think Braxton's writing offers one of the most useful tools for thinking about Marsalis/neo-classicism etc. in general…no time now – off to the studio! – but I'm talking in particular about his analysis of restructuralism/stylism/traditionalism…one of the clearest statements being in Graham Lock's fantastic book 'Forces in Motion'. Another nice statement here: http://www.newalbion.com/artists/braxtona/

    Must dash…

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