Trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis: love him or resent him. But Marsalis is one of the most prolific instrumentalists of the last 40 years. A virtuoso in both jazz and Western classical music, he has recorded as many as 75 times as a leader, including his long discography leading the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Thrust into the spotlight by Columbia Records before he was 21 years old—Marsalis, born in 1961, won simultaneous Grammys in jazz and classical categories in both 1983 and 1984—he has a limited career as a sideman but has also made notable recordings with Art Blakey, Herbie Hancock, and others.
Beyond the music itself, Marsalis has been a lightning rod. His central role in Ken Burns’ Jazz series and his founding of Jazz at Lincoln Center, where he is currently Managing and Artistic Director, both put him in the role of defining a “jazz establishment”—and one that often was explicitly traditional and suspicious of both avant-garde traditions in jazz and fusions of jazz with popular music. Along with jazz critic Stanley Crouch, who passed in 2020, Marsalis often engaged in polemics on how jazz should be laser-defined by the tradition of swing rhythm, acoustic instrumentation, and harmonic structures based in blues, ballad, and Latin playing.
Additionally, as Marsalis won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize in music for his oratorio Blood on the Fields, he increasingly positioned himself as a serious composer and not just a trumpet player or jazz musician. As a result, attention shifted away from what an astonishing jazz soloist Marsalis always was, decade after decade, and how good his bands and his crackling recordings really were.
Marsalis has a new recording, The Democracy! Suite, featuring a septet pulled from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. It is his first small-band recording in a while, and—like the bulk of his music—it swings like mad. It is cannily arranged and skillful, hitting a variety of moods and referents. The players get lots of solo time and use it well. That said, it comes after so very much Marsalis music that it’s a bit like yet another Woody Allen movie—if you’d never experienced one before you might be like Whoaaaaa, what’s this? But you have seen/heard them all before.
Amidst the abundance, however, there are some dazzlers, and it’s high time we picked a Wynton Marsalis Top Ten from his career-spanning trove, at least on the jazz side—which is where he has concentrated his talent.
The material is vast, and I could have eliminated the fun of this article by simply recommending the colossal and superb seven-disc box set Live a the Village Vanguard from 1999 (a year when Marsalis released eight other albums). It compiles recordings by his septet across five years and includes material from everything he had done up to that point, including his extended works—all played with dash and polish, live. (A year later, Sony put out a single-CD “best of”, and that’s great too, easily deserving a top-five placement on this list.) But, because I have painstakingly listened to all the underlying recordings, I’m going leave Live at the Village Vanguard here as the adjustable wrench of the Marsalis toolbox.
Now, in descending order—and with my explanation of why they sound so fantastic, who else was making these dates, and those exact moments that show off the kind of playing that you can only get from Wynton Marsalis—I offer The Wynton To Ten. He is, after all, still one of the greatest trumpet players ever.
10. In This House, On This Morning 
Why It’s Really Good: When Marsalis wrote and recorded this almost two-hour suite for his septet, he was in the midst of his first ambitious, long-form composition/performances. This felt like the one he should explore further in the years to come (and he would do exactly that two decades on—see The Absynnian Mass, toward the top of this list). Set up in the form of a mass (with a “Devotional”, a “Call to Prayer”, a “Processional” etc.) it includes some singing from the band as well as playing, all of which comes together on the compelling “In the Sweet Embrace of Life”, featuring brilliant playing from the leader and the bassist Reginald Veal. Ellingtonian, yes, with Todd Williams’s tenor saxophone dishing out rare Paul Gonvalves action and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon clinching the connection, but not derivative. Inconsistent, maybe, but it gets to greatness eventually.
Killer Track: “In the Sweet Embrace of Life”
Notable Collaborators: Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon
Wynton-ian Moment: On “In the Sweet Embrace of Life Sermon: Holy Ghost”, pianist Eric Reed sets up a driving, uptempo gospel groove and the first solo is highly vocalized trombone magic from Gordon. Then the key changes and it’s Marsalis’s turn—and he takes his time, develops some themes, makes his tone increasingly growly and varied, uses repeated licks, smears, and shouts, then he finally just obliterates things with a call-and-response section with the other horns. Yes, of course, he was mimicking some heroes (Armstrong, some of the Ellington trumpet players), but no one else was doing this kind of thing in 1994. Retro but exciting and far from packaged.
9. Live at Blues Alley 
Why It’s Really Good: After Marsalis moved on from his initial, sizzling, Miles Davis-inspired quintet, he made some terrific recordings with this quartet, featuring pianist Marcus Roberts in place of Kenny Kirkland and no saxophone. (Kirkland and Branford were playing with Sting around this time.) Capable of burning (“Skain’s Domain”) and playing sumptuous ballads (“Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans”), this band keeps it lightly cooking throughout this club date—and some of this stuff is so good (a version of “Cherokee” with Harmon mute) that the audience is clearly transported. This was the last pure flowering of Marsalis’s virtuosity on the horn as the main dish. Eat up.
Killer Tracks: “Cherokee” and “Chamber of Tain”
Notable Collaborators: Pianist Marcus Roberts
Wynton-ian Moment: Marsalis opens the closer, “Much Later”, accompanied only by bass and drums, improvising in a what-if-Louis-Armstong-were-still-alive style. As good as Roberts is on all these tracks, the leader proves the piano irrelevant by playing with total command, wit, and melodic brilliance. And when the piano enters it just gets even better, but only because the trio, alone, built the tension sky-high across three full minutes.