Who better to invoke the past in tune than Wynton Marsalis? After all, the stick-in-the-mud trumpet virtuoso reveres the days of yore as few others playing today, proffering them nightly before sellout crowds the world round. So when the gig came up to score Ken Burns' new documentary, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson , the choice was simple, almost ordained.
As evidenced by the title, boxer Jack Johnson's life was a dervish of accomplishment and misfortuneascending to highs of heavyweight triumph, then plummeting to brutal lows of racial persecution and social exile. Such a life requires an accompaniment as varied as its own travails and indulgences and thus Marsalis' score was forced to shift with the shifting tides of Johnson's tragic tale.
The twenty-odd tracks on the disc are appropriately drenched in these turns and likewise shaped to convey the musical forms that populated the boxer's times. Ragtime stomps, strides and blues allow Marsalis and company to paint an evocative portrait of Johnson's America, or rather the America that built and broke the fighter's legendary spirit.
Perhaps the most surprising quality of this recording is the way in which intended antiquation blends with inevitable modernity. For card-carrying Ragtimers, a measure of delight will be found in hearing contemporary musicians whoop, squall, bump, grind and gut-bucket to fresh compositions, captured without the blips, scratches and echoes of jazz music's earliest recordings.
What's more, the album even offers an occasional taste of modern lyricism (see Victor Goines' tenor solo on "New Orleans Bump"), cleverly manifesting the unflappable progressiveness at the core of Johnson's legacy.
Although Marsalis and Burns may forever be the subject of distaste and criticism, this new collaboration is certainly worth a listen.
Track Listing: What Have You Done?; Ghost in the House; Jack Johnson Two-Step; But Deep Down; Love & Hate; High Society; Careless Love; New Orleans Bump; Trouble My Soul; Deep Creek; The Johnson 2-Step; Rattlesnake Tail Swing; Weary Blues; Troubles My Soul; Johnson Two-Step; Fire in the Night; Morning Song; I'll Sing My Song; Buddy Bolden's Blues; The Last Bell; We'll Meet Again Someday.
Personnel: Wynton Marsalis- trumpet; Wessell Anderson- alto saxophone, clarinet; Victor Goines- clarinet, tenor saxophone, bass clarinet; Wycliffe Gordon- trombone, tuba on "New Orleans Bump;" Lucien Barbarin - trombone; Eric Lewis- piano, washboard on "What Have You Done?" Eric Reed- piano; Reginald Veal- bass; Herlin Riley- drums, tambourine; Doug Wamble, Don Vappie- banjo, guitar; Dr. Michael White, Sam Karam, Sherman Irby, Andrew Farber- clarinet; Gideon Feldstein- clarinet, bass clarinet on "Fire in the Night;" Marcus Printup- trumpet on "Fire in the Night;" Stephen Riley- tenor saxophone on "Fire in the Night;" Kimati Dinizulu- percussion on "Fire in the Night."