“The entire world is struggling with issues of governance, belief, financial resources, and cultural integrity. This is not the time for sleepwalking,” Wynton Marsalis tweeted recently. The Ever Fonky Lowdown , launched on 21 August, is a major new work lasting 110 minutes which takes on those issues.
The album has been launched amid the frenetic machinations of the US presidential election campaign, which hardly seems a coincidence. Wynton Marsalis has described the work in one interview as “show[ing] us a blueprint how to rise above populist propaganda.”
And yet Marsalis is also keen that the work be seen in a broader context. Not just in the sweep of history, but also in the context of the canon his own larger works which have commented on societal issues, of which this is the fifth: Black Codes Underground was recorded in 1985. Then Blood on the Fields which looked at freedoms, All Rise , with Los Angeles Philharmonic from 2002 which he sees as looking at ‘collective humanity’ and From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, released in 2007.
The Ever Fonky Lowdown was recorded in a day and a half of sessions in October 2019, and features the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Jason Marsalis on drums (“it has so many New Orleans grooves, it had to be someone from New Orleans”) , singers including Camille Thurman and Doug Wamble and an important role for narrator Wendell Pierce. Wynton Marsalis did a series of interviews to mark the release (*) including one with Sebastian.
“The music satirises the things that divide us,” Marsalis has said. But he goes a step further: “We are in such an ironic time, it is almost hard to be satirical.”
There is a narrator and main protagonist, and this is a new departure for Wynton Marsalis’ major works. There was a spoken text by Stanley Crouch in The Fiddler’s Tale, but the integration of a voice which comments and explains and is also a protagonist in the proceedings does determine the way Fonky Lowdown works.
Mr Game, whose words are all written by Marsalis and spoken by Wendell Pierce, is something of a circus ringmaster. Marsalis says he is like PT Barnum… but also based on “evangelical hustlers throughout time… the Western braggart round the campfire, and politicians going back to Julius Caesar.”
The narrator can ironize, ensure that the listener keeps thinking, using techniques reminiscent of Brecht in, say, the Threepenny Opera. Thus when the singers solemnly and beautifully intone a phrase like “What would the saviour think?” the narrator instantly overlays the moment with irony, describing what has just been sung as “that saviour nonsense.”
Mr. Game points out that the people who are being talked of as winners are being taken for a ride in a game where money and power are guarded jealously, obsessively: “You, oh glorious people, may not get any of the spoils of this war but you’re winners!”
The dark forces at play in the law are singled out too. Legislators who are in fact ignorant traders and have never studied law, or indeed bothered to read the legislation they are enacting for are savagely taken to task in the number “Night Trader”: “Sign a bill, don’t even read a Bill… Sell you a loan that’ll take your home.” And the lyric elsewhere is scathing about “the easy attitude of entitlement that comes with freedom and wealth.”
Repeatedly, the piece makes it plain that the processes of bullying and exclusion and intimidation are actually carried out as if with sadistic pleasure. So if the question is:
“My sister my brother, won’t you tell me why you treat me so bad?”
Then the answer comes back unequivocally:
“Because I want to/ Because I like to / Because I CAN.”
And yet with the cruelty there is also a lot of clever and targeted humour in Lowdown. The narrator at one point calls himself a “Happy rhyming fool” and if one listens carefully there are rhymes that are sometimes poignant, as in “Our lives gave them purpose / To serve us”, or clever (like ‘orderr’ rhyming with ‘slaughter’, or just funny: when one hears the juxtaposition of ‘working’ and ‘twerking’ it suddenly seems obvious that the two words were made to rhyme.
That contrast between the seriousness of the issues and the joy of making the music dominates the piece. Doug Wamble, with whom Marsalis long-standing working relationship, is given a very powerful song, “I Like my Ice Cream”, which is loosely based on Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”, but taken on a harmonic wander through several keys.
In the final analysis, however, Lowdown is an unmistakable call to what Marsalis has repeatedly called ‘acuity’, to “recognize what is going on”:
“You’re going to pick on the poorest and most disenfranchised people and they are going to be the enemy of the United States of America,” he said in the TV interview with Bill Maher (link below). “Focus your gaze on who is exploiting and manipulating you.”
The JLCO at the sessions for “The Ever Fonky Lowdown”