Yesterday and Today—Jazz Trumpets Across the Divide

Avant garde trumpeter Nate Wooley has chosen to interpret the music of his childhood hero, the conservative Wynton Marsalis. Why not?
Nate Wooley
(Dance to) The Early Music
Clean Feed

I’ve been writing about jazz here at PopMatters for a decade, and one of my first columns was about the contrasts and similarities between the two trumpet players, in the wake of the new millennium, who seemed most important and yet set against each other by the jazz press: Wynton Marsalis and Dave Douglas. Marsalis, who is only slightly older than his counterpart, had long represented a more traditional position on the instrument and in the jazz landscape — that of honoring the past, devoting time to repertory playing, and standing in wary judgment of music that dilutes the traditional jazz verities of swing, blues, and acoustic instrumentation. Douglas was oriented differently: combining jazz with all manner of new forms, playing with funk, electric guitars and keyboards, open to playing well outside the standard tonalities.

The point of the column — and, I think, the point of at least half of the essays and reviews I have written since — was that the distance between the Marsalis “mainstream” and the further edges of the music is exaggerated. Even as jazz becomes less commercially viable (and perhaps, because it has become less commercially viable), most jazz musicians under 50 are equally fluent in mainstream and “outside” playing; they grew up on hip-hop as much they were weaned on Dizzy or Louis; they have voracious and wide-ranging music tastes that make allegiance to any one style seem unnatural.

Another Tale of Two Trumpeters

In 2015, it’s no longer necessary to reach for critic’s comparisons or metaphors to show how a trumpet player associated with jazz’s avant garde is, in fact, linked to the tradition as expressed by Marsalis. Why? Because Nate Wooley, a trumpeter who is associated very, very strongly with jazz’s “free” edge, has just released an album interpreting compositions by Wynton Marsalis. Really? Yup, because Wooley, born in 1974, was an impressionable jazz-fascinated kid-then-adolescent when Marsalis was first emerged on the scene in the early ’80s and was, of course, a huge Marsalis fan.

Today, perhaps, Marsalis’ reputation is dominated by his leadership of Jazz at Lincoln Center, the uber-establishment home of jazz repertory playing, and his often strident denunciation of various forms of free jazz and jazz hybrid styles. He is seen, and deservedly so, as a jazz conservative/conservator. He’s also seen, sadly, as a jazz scold, the guy who would shame anyone doing something new, something different.

Who Wynton Marsalis Was

But that’s not the whole Marsalis, and it certainly wasn’t the young Marsalis who produced scintillating early albums such as Wynton Marsalis (1981), Think of One (1983), Black Codes from the Underground (1985), and J Mood (1986). When Marsalis surged onto the jazz stage as a young guy, he was the fiery music director for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, a band that sounded better than it had in some time, crackling with rhythm and adventurous playing. Blakey, of course, had been keeping the flame of hard bop utterly alive through a decade of fusion and more edgy experimentation, but Marsalis brought the band both a new level of virtuosity and a touch of fame.

He was soon to be recording both his first album as a leader — but also his first as a classical soloist, winning Grammys for both. He was recording and touring with Miles Davis’ old rhythm section (Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams) and even famously got in some kind of brush-up with Davis in 1986, when he walked on stage with Davis in Vancouver to sit in with his band after, quoting Marsalis, “his constant public shit-talking about me”.

Of course, this is where the conservative, preservationist Marsalis started to emerge, stepping up to Davis — a hero of his — but doing it in a manner that was both brash and implicitly confrontational. The point is that to any young trumpet player back in the ’80s, Marsalis was a pretty hip role model: utterly brilliant as a player, of course, and simultaneously new and old. The early Marsalis let you hear modern jazz — essentially Davis’ career arc from bop to the post-bop of the ‘60s — as something new and cool again. What kid wouldn’t love that?

The critique of Marsalis’ early music, as I recall, was that music very much like it had already been made, and about 20 years prior. (This, perhaps, was the shit that Davis was talking about regarding the young Wynton.) There are two problems with that critique, however. First, every style of music should have brilliant modern exponents, so Marsalis’ hip stop-time “Hesitation” isn’t a rip off of Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo” (which is itself just a new theme over the chord changes to “I Got Rhythm”) but just a great song in the tradition. Second, there were new things in Marsalis’ music and certainly in the way that he improvised. Maybe the evolution was subtle, but here was a player who was creating knotty tunes and knotty improvised lines that still always resolved in miraculous accord with the rules. The music was a thrill ride and a jab toward controlled freedom.

Revisiting Marsalis

And now, 30 years later, we have a new take on Marsalis’ early music, a take that embraces the music without judgement and without reverence.

In his liner notes to (Dance to) The Early Music, Nate Wooley writes at length about what the recording is not. It “is not an homage to Wynton… It is not a piece of post-modern commentary… It is not Ironic.. And most importantly, [it] is not a political or social statement.” Rather, Wooley writes, “[t]his record is, fully and simply, a person’s attempt to look at his history and to remember what it feels like to be home.”

So here it is. The recording starts with “Hesitation”, this time played by Wooley and bandmate Josh Sinton on bass clarinet rather than Wynton and Branford. They play it with the tune’s familiar, swung punch, but on the next-to-last note of the theme they freeze and just hold two notes in harmony for what seems like forever, as if the old music was being paused for a moment, only to be turned into something new. Then in come Eivand Opsvik on bass and Harris Eisenstadt’s drums to swing the tune into freedom.

(Dance to) The Early Music then serves us heaping scoops of sincere contrast as well as lots of love. If you want to say that it is vastly more mainstream than the great bulk of Wooley’s other music, well, that’s just mainly true. But it is also immensely different from Marsalis’ music. If Wooley started his musical life with “Hesitation” and then built a bridge to a very different sensibility, then perhaps (Dance to) finds the two trumpeter’s meeting in the middle of that bridge, pretty far afield from either’s pure comfort zone.

Nate Wooley, Himself

The sound of Wooley as a fully formed artist would be hard to trace back to Marsalis on purely musical grounds. Wooley is a key member of a jazz scene that not easy to define but that sits on the left fringe of the music, using elements of contemporary classical music (or “new music”), atonal avant grade jazz, noise, and free improvisation. All those labels are inadequate, of course. Perhaps it’s better to say that every collaboration and project of Wooley’s that I have heard (and there are many) embraces a tremendous openness about different idioms, techniques, and sounds. Unlike Marsalis and his allegiance to a carefully define portion of the “jazz” tradition, Wooley moves into each musical territory with relatively little restriction.

So, in 2014’s trio with guitarist Marc Ducret and drummer Teun VerBruggen, Wooley is a partner in creating soundscapes that rely much more on texture (and “extended techniques” that create texture in unconventional ways) than on melody. The Now from 2012 works a similar territory with a different band, putting Wooley into conversation with Chicago reedman Ken Vandermark. He’s more of a delicate scamp in dialogue with guitarist Joe Morris (Tooth and Nail from 2010). Trumpet recitals all alone, overdubbed, or with likeminded trumpeter Peter Evans are all fascinating: for example, The Almond from 2011 is a single 72-minute composition that is Reich-ian (or Glass-ian? I’m not sure I know the difference) in being, essentially a mass of overdubbed horns creating perpetually sustained, slow-shifting chords.

Elsewhere, Wooley is enmeshed in the manipulation of taped sounds, collaboration with angular European improvisors who — cliches be damned, this is just true — show little interest in the blues tradition that so animated early free music icons such as Coltrane and Albert Ayler, and tons of sideman work where he might be playing just about anything, including progressive takes on older music such as on Standards by Jackson Moore (“My Old Flame”, “Every Time We Say Goodbye”, etc).

Pinning down Wooley to one approach is not likely to happen. He’s the Big Bang — a hundred thousand exploding, expanding hot bits of matter.

There’s now a strong biographical argument that the core from which Wooley exploded outward was one of Marsalis focus, swing, and technique.

Wooley Plays Wynton

Not that (Dance to) The Early Music is a recreation or a piece of art that ignores Wooley’s mature body of work. Not at all. In between the two straight statements of the opening head on “Hesitation”, Wooley and his band trace a graceful and intimate outline of all the jazz that followed from 1959 — the year that Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue set the imprint one kind of safe post-bop and the year that Ornette Coleman set in motion so much of what was to follow.

It hardly seems like a coincidence that Wooley chose an instrumentation for this recording that is the same as that of Eric Dolphy’s classic 1964 Blue Note recording Out to Lunch, which joined Freddie Hubbard’s trumpet to Dolphy’s bass clarinet in the front line, support by a rhythm section substituting vibes for piano. Wooley brings Josh Sinton in as a surrogate Dolphy, and Sinton plays it beautifully, rolling across the recordings with a mixture of bop rhythm and harmonic adventure.

Matt Moran’s vibes are there for Bobby Hutcherson, making the harmony of most tunes pretty and yet impressionistic. Dolphy — about whom Miles Davis said in a 1964 Downbeat Blindfold Test, “That’s got to be Eric Dolphy — nobody else could sound that bad!” — is an ideal foil for the Marsalis incantation that jazz somehow went sour after 1960 or so.

On “Delfeayo’s Dilemma”, for example, Wooley states the jagged theme on his own, muted, during which Opsvik and Eisenstadt bring in off-kilter but swinging rhythm. The leader solos with open horn, keeping the band to a free trio, sounding not entirely unlike Marsalis in some places: growling like a New Orleans player, tracing modern chordal structures.

The theme recurs with Sinton a second time before Moran improvises, during which the swing feeling gets more and more fragmented, until finally vibes and bass clarinet are improvising together in a collective blend. By this point, with Sinton jabbering and crying like Dolphy and Dolphy’s successors, the listener knows that the tune has gone where Marsalis wouldn’t have dared to take it (even though musicians were going there shortly after Marsalis was born). The theme returns in a reinvented half-time — essentially a new piece of music.

The very next tune on Marsalis’ Black Codes (From the Underground) is also the next track on The Early Music, “Phryzzinian Man”. My recollection of the original is that of a popping if mysterious swinger that uses catchy gestures for a theme. Wooley understands the “gestural” nature of the theme, and he uses each smaller piece in greater isolation. Sinton introduces the theme over several minutes of whispering but avant-garde bass clarinet work, leading up to one theme. Over time the bass will pick up part of the theme, the trumpet another. Like a Picasso canvass, this version of “Phryzzinian” looks at its subject from multiple angles, covering every element but pushing and pulling them into something new.

Maybe the coolest track is Wooley’s wonderful take on “Skain’s Domain” from Marsalis’ J Mood, which starts with a 90-second stretch of solo trumpet acrobatics. Wooley plays with tone, intonation, and timbre is ways that are more playful than strange, letting his brass sputter, tap dance, wiggle, and beguile. When he plays the quick announcement of theme, the band enters with chimes from bass and vibes and a drum pattern fairly close to the original but faster.

The ensemble section that follows, however, never launches into Cadillac-esque swing but instead moves in a herky-jerky groove that supports a funky collective solo. Opsvik walks some, sure, but even then this is a new generation of swing, and the tempo rushes ahead furiously as Sinton, Moran, and Wooley chase each other from one end of the hall to another … until Eisenstadt slows it all down with a series of rolls and explosions that lead the horns into a mournful repetition of one phrase from the theme until it all closes down.

There’s a wealth of other fascinating information on (Dance to) The Early Music: Wooley’s almost classical, precise ease with bebop phrasing on “On Insane Asylum”; the beautiful phrasing of the ensembles of “J Mood” that bookend a long drum solo; the way Wooley’s arrangement of “For Wee Folks” follows the original with care except rhythmically, setting up Moran’s best work on the set; the exquisitely felt trumpet performance on “Blues”; and finally the extraordinary “Post-Hesitation”, during which Wooley and his band allow the original tune to sizzle away into a new, original composition that is built largely around just the first two notes of the Marsalis tune. It is both the most purely beautiful thing on The Early Music and a track that is most through-written. Because it ends the recording, it settles the listener back to a meditative state, thinking about the fact that Marsalis and Wooley are hardly opposites, despite expectation, and hardly the same, despite influences.

Which Leaves Us Where, Exactly?

For listeners who hear only jabbering noise in the music of a largely experimental musician such as Nate Wooley, this project helps to show how that music derives from more mainstream, tonal jazz. For listeners who find Marsalis’ music to be corny or derivative, a throwback to music that was original 65 years ago but no longer, Wooley’s recasting suggests beauty and modern relevance for an artist mostly thought of as a conservative.

The most important conclusion, however, relates to the state of jazz today rather than individual musicians. Younger musicians simply do not observe bright lines between styles these days. In a world where almost any young person’s iTunes library will contain Kanye as well as Kind of Blue, Aaron Copland alongside Sly Stone, stylistic boundaries are obsolete. As keyboard hero John Medeski told me in an interview last year, the lack of a tonal center in much of hip-hop creates a world where lots of young people don’t find avant garde music all that avant garde at all.

Nate Wooley knows his stuff. He’s a the product of a musical childhood, playing professionally with his dad when he was 13. His childhood hero was the most technically proficient trumpeter in jazz history. This makes him exemplary for his generation of jazz players: not a primitive or imprecise artist but a musician for whom form is central to his own fierce style. Wooley can move his art any direction he chooses. And his choices are always interesting!

If Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center defined its boundaries more broadly, it would be about the future as much as it is about the past. But jazz, the living thing, looks both backward and decisively forward. Just like Nate Wooley.