The complaint that some jazz folks have with Wynton Marsalis is that, way too soon in his career, he became an outspoken proponent of all that was old-fashioned and conventional. He spoke out against electric instruments, rock rhythms, and excessively avant-garde playing. He lauded the canon of Armstrong and Ellington, and he was installed at the helm of Jazz at Lincoln Center to make sure that the music didn’t get too adventurous.
This, of course, is an unfair simplification. First, Marsalis is one of the greatest instrumentalists in jazz, capable of magic on the trumpet. If his tone and attack as a youngster was all fleet perfection, he has spent the last two decades perfecting an arsenal of growls, smears, and other bold techniques that make him a paragon of broad expressiveness. Second, it was a boon to jazz that Marsalis steered jazz back toward its roots in the 1980s. While jazz always needs its risk-taking avant-garde, a new generation of brilliantly trained classicists keeping the history of the music alive during a time when legends were dropping like flies was a good thing. Finally, Marsalis put his money where his mouth was, composing challenging and ambitious jazz works that were not complacent or mired in the past.
That being said, this collection of standard and ballad performances from Marsalis’s vast Columbia catalog (he is now recording for Blue Note) only reinforces the cliché that Marsalis is crazy-talented but largely a boring romantic. Though there are a few tasty tracks that break the mold, too much of Standards and Ballads is gorgeously played snooze music, material that worked much more effectively on the original albums where they were contrasted with tunes with quicker rhythms or different approaches. Most of these tunes are, in fact, standards that happen to be ballads.
It doesn’t help that four of these 14 tunes are drawn from Marsalis’s “with strings” albums (1984’s weak Hot House Flowers and 1997’s Standard Time Vol.5: The Midnight Blues, which is superior). I don’t mean to begrudge any jazz musician’s desire to record with strings (hey, Bird did it, right?), but it’s an impulse that rarely sounds forward-looking or thrilling. No matter how quicksilver the trumpet is on “I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry” — and it is astonishingly fine playing by any measure — the whole package sounds gussied up. Your grandma would like it too much. No offense, Grandma. Given that Louis is one of Marsalis’s true heroes, his “Stardust” here seems not merely softened up with strings but also rhythmically uninteresting.
Much more pleasing is a muted Marsalis on Pops’ “When It’s Sleeptime Down South”, backed just by his great rhythm section from way back featuring Marcus Roberts’s ingenious piano. The conversation between soloist and rhythm section here is elegant but also limber and rubbery, with time expanding and contracting with each phrase. The performances in this collection that feature a sure, medium swing — “Embraceable You”, “April in Paris”, and “My Ideal” — will help any jazz neophyte to understand what might make jazz so irresistible when it is played well.
The more interesting material here, however, comes either from Marsalis’s more expansive writing for larger groups or from his more intimate encounters. If the young Marsalis was all about brilliant trumpet playing, the more mature musician became a capable arranger with a keen sense of texture and color. So the version here of Monk’s “Reflections” is consistently rewarding, as the leader uses his wonderful sextet (rhythm plus trumpet, trombone, tenor, and alto sax) to vinegar-up the tune as well as give it a swooning Ellington-style lushness. His own composition, “Spring Yaounde”, is a duet with pianist Eric Reed, and it takes you on a genuine journey, with Reed playing like a composer himself, avoiding every jazz cliché. “The Seductress” is also an original and a little jazz sonata, this time with dad Ellis Marsalis in support. Wynton’s tone and muting technique here is brilliant.
Marsalis has played enough standard material over the years, certainly, to warrant a “best of” treatment. It is somewhat perverse, I think, for Columbia (which dropped Marsalis but is now happy to resell his old stuff) to make a single disc of “Standards and Ballads”, then weight it almost entirely toward the slow stuff. The project has a “Wynton for the Bedroom” vibe, perhaps, and it certainly leaves out a large swath of thrilling Marsalis standard playing that could be termed “exciting” or even “fiery”.
But that’s probably just a marketing, right? Sell jazz as a “pretty” thing, a glass-of-white-wine thing, a late-night-seduction thing. In fact, it can be that but it can be so much more. Wynton Marsalis certainly knows that. And Columbia Records, with its long history of having a top jazz division, once knew it. But in the era of Smoooooth Jazz and aging baby-boomers, it’s Standards and Ballads from here to the window. You could do worse.
But then again, you could do better.