PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
April 25, 2006

Wynton Blows into Town

by Jim Newsom

“Marsalis” is the top brand in jazz. More people know the name than actually know the music. The father and four of the sons are among the most widely respected jazz musicians in the world, and when either of the two oldest kids comes to town, it’s big news.

Both of them have come our way this spring. Big brother Branford headlined the Ella Fitzgerald Music Festival in Newport News earlier this month, filling the room at the Ferguson Center on a Saturday night. Three weeks later, Wynton brings his trumpet and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra to Chrysler Hall Sunday night for one of the front-cover events of the Virginia Arts Festival.

Wynton Marsalis is single-handedly credited for the resurgence of traditionally structured, acoustic jazz. When he arrived on the scene in 1981, just out of high school and a brief stay in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the old guard of the jazz establishment quickly latched on to him as the music’s “savior.” His quick ascension to prominence launched the “young lions” movement of the time, and suddenly the jazz world was looking forward by looking back.

His arrival on the scene also coincided with the end, both artistically and commercially, of the fusion era, a period in which some of the best known of the younger jazz players flirted with rock elements and rock players came from the other side to incorporate jazz elements, resulting in a short-lived but musically and financially rewarding hybrid that looked like it would play a major role in the future of both genres. It was a marriage that appealed to young people but alienated traditionalists in both camps.

For the last 25 years, Wynton Marsalis has been both the best known name and the tallest lightning rod in the jazz world, generating controversy with his outspokenness and for his selective version of jazz history. While his trumpet technique is undeniable, critics have called his playing cold, calculated and lacking in that mysterious quality called soul. His commentary for Ken Burns’ Jazz series on PBS was both enlightening and frustrating. He is a fascinating but elusive personality.

Sunday night at the Chrysler, he and the LCJO will perform a new composition called “Congo Square” that he co-wrote with Ghanaian drummer Yacub Addy. The performance brings together the Orchestra with Addy’s percussion-rich ensemble, Odadaa!

It’s the same work premiered last week in New Orleans and performed while traveling up the Atlantic coast for the last few days. It was inspired by the public square in New Orleans where Africans once gathered to perform their songs and dances. From the days of slavery until the early post-Civil War era, Congo Square was the only place in America where they could perform their native music and dance because African drumming was banned in most of the country. From here, the troupe travels to the Kennedy Center and on to Lincoln Center itself.

Since taking the reins as artistic director of the Lincoln Center jazz program in 1991, Marsalis has mined the music’s history. His work there has been highlighted by tributes to Duke Ellington, a rescoring of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, and an interesting reworking of Charles Mingus’ music on last year’s Don’t Be Afraid. The Jazz Orchestra has also accompanied its leader on ambitious works like the Pulitzer Prize-winning Blood on the Fields. The new “Congo Square” project was on the drawing board before last year’s hurricanes, but its timing has added resonance in their aftermath. Louisiana Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu issued a statement calling it “a message to our people and to the world that New Orleans’ music and culture will serve as the foundation of the efforts to rebuild.”

copyright © 2006 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.