I’ll admit it. When I ripped open a padded envelope last week and found a copy of Wynton Marsalis’ new box set Swinging into the 21st my heart sank. What could be said about Wynton Marsalis that hasn’t already been said? Then I started doing some research and realized that, my god, there is a lot about Wynton Marsalis that I don’t know. But not to bore you with my lack of knowledge (that’s a whole other article all together), let’s talk about this set.
In 1999 Marsalis set out on an incredible journey. In those 12 months, he recorded and released nine albums. Yes, nine. Nueve. Nuef. Nove. Ok, you get the point. Those albums, and one more two-disc orchestration recorded at the Hollywood Bowl only days after Sept. 11, 2001, are included in this box set. After binging (not purging) on these 11 discs over the past week, I have decided that Wynton Marsalis should officially be declared the hardest working man in show business (sorry, Mr. Brown, your title has been passed on to the next contender). But the most amazing thing is that, each on their own, and for their own separate reasons, every one of these discs is legitimately good. Some are better than others, but they are all albums that speak beyond the modern day; they lean on history and they reach toward the future. They are jazz at jazz’s finest, whether in the form of a ballet, an improvised session, a tribute album, a live performance, or an orchestra.
The two tribute albums contained in the box — Mr. Jelly Lord and Marsalis Plays Monk, discs six and two in the set, respectively, and both part of his Standard Time series — pay homage to two of the most important jazz artists in history: Jelly Roll Morton and Thelonious Monk. While the tribute to Jelly Roll is a near perfect recreation of the hootin’ and hollerin’ old school New Orleans jazz that fills your dreams of classic Bourbon Street bars, Marsalis’ take on Monk is quite different than what the great pianist would have ever done. Though they still hold some of the quirks of Monk, the takes here are more straightforward and provide an engaging listen to the beauty of Monk’s writing, rather than his rhythmic inventiveness.
Jumping back to the opening disc of the box set, A Fiddler’s Tale is a rework of Igor Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat, a piece written as musical theater that could be performed independent of its spoken word. Marsalis’ version is, of course, rooted in a different place than Stravinsky’s, and replaces the original story with one by Stanley Crouch, performed vibrantly in segments throughout the disc by actor Andre De Shields. The music alone is also played as filler after the string quartet arrangement of At the Octoroon Balls (disc three of the set), which Marsalis wrote for the Orion String Quartet. While Octoroon may be the least successful of Marsalis’ nine albums that year, it still stands to provoke the thought that Marsalis simply cannot be stopped: if he has an idea, he will pursue it, whether or not it’s where his comfort lies. Though it has roots in jazz, its most calling sounds are not jazz — they are experimentally classical. And of course, there are beautiful moments laced throughout.
Sweet Release & Ghost Story: Two More Ballets by Wynton Marsalis come to us as the fourth disc of the set. Sweet Release, to the ears at least, is one of the more groovy ballets out there. The story of a romantic courtship, it captures all the emotions of the beginnings to a new relationship: subdued nervousness, fluttery excitement, all encompassing joy, and finally relaxed calm. Marsalis displays some truly outstanding trumpet work throughout the piece, which he performs with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and the work as a whole is wholly remarkable. Ghost Story is, musically, quite the opposite. It is gentle though at times a bit more aggressive than it may need to be. His version of a tango is brilliant and perfect at times, but at others it seriously lacks enthusiasm. Unfortunately, that theme seems to carry on for the entire work in this case.
Big Train is another one of Marsalis’s classic implication of something new with a basis in the old school. The long form piece is made up of numbers that flow into each other, each with the purpose of recreating a train ride, though it somehow lacks the movement that is so inherent in travel. Notes are perfectly placed, and played, but at no point do you feel the need to get up and go, or as if the scenery is rapidly rushing past you. But still, it masterfully captures the emotions and, at times, sounds of its song’s titles. The jarring, squeaking sounds of “All Aboard” mimic a train’s whistles, calls, and first chugs of a long trip; “Sleeper Car” lulls perfect for a nighttime push through woods between faraway cities.
The absence of any mention of Reeltime in the liner note introduction for the box set may lie in the album’s history. Originally commissioned and written to be used as the soundtrack for the 1997 film Rosewood, it was ultimately passed up in favor of music by composer John Williams. Thankfully, Marsalis saw the value in the music anyway, and decided to release Reeltime as part of his massive 1999 roll out. As the movie is based on the 1923 Rosewood Massacre in Florida, the music is full of southern flavor – from piano jazz, big band and country-blues to bluegrass and gospel, there is even a square dance thrown in. Marsalis does it all masterfully. As always, he surrounded himself with the perfect crew. All the singing parts are done perfectly, as are the fiddles and the big band.
Two discs by the Wynton Marsalis Septet bring the marathon closer to an end. Selections from the Village Vanguard Box is as good as its name suggests. Recorded over a few years of December performances at New York’s famed Village Vanguard, the selections on this disc capture the raw energy, talent, and harnessed emotion that must have filled the room those many nights that the Wynton Marsalis Septet performed until early the next morning. Of the 12 selected tracks on here, there is not one that lags behind the others, although the perfect sync and unbridled enthusiasm of “Happy Feet Blues” and the exceptional fervor and thrilling accuracy of “Cherokee” may stand slightly taller than the rest. The Marciac Suite was written for the town of Marciac, France after they created a statue of Marsalis. It was performed for the first time in a town square one August during their annual jazz festival. The Suite, as is true with just about everything put out by the Septet that I can recall, is full of everything you can ask for. Though perhaps not as lively here as it may have been performed live, the swing is still there in tunes like “Marciac Fun” and album opener “Loose Duck”. The entire suite is rather difficult, too, but the players tackle it with such precision you’d think they could sleep through it.
Though Wynton wrote All Rise during that whirlwind year of 1999, it was scheduled to be performed in September of 2001. Only a couple of days after the falling of the Twin Towers in New York, the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles became a gathering place and an unsuspecting memorial to the event, as the Los Angeles Philharmonic played the piece. Today, that performance of All Rise is considered one of the defining moments for our country’s unity after those horrid attacks. And for good reason. Listening even today to the 12 movements over 106 minutes brings a powerful wave of awe, as if it were written specifically to mark such an important event in history. It is one of the most, if not the most ambitious and important works of the turn of the century – not only for the meaning it took on but also for the grandiose production. Marsalis only takes one extended solo throughout the piece, though the rest of the work is divided well amongst the other performers. Solos ring throughout, but it is the moments they play in unison that will stick with you.
While this 11 disc box set may mark Marsalis’ 50th year in the music industry, it is still not likely that he will stop any time soon – or at least that’s what we can hope. The defining year of 1999 will live on thanks to this box, but more importantly it will carry on through any music that Marsalis writes from here on out.