And you thought the recent four-disc collection of Coltrane’s 1961 Village Vanguard recordings was a lot to chew on. Here comes Wynton Marsalis with a whopping seven CDs culled from septet performances at the Vanguard from 1990 through 1994. The music is cleverly presented: Each disc represents a different night of the week, starting on Monday and wrapping up with Sunday. But music spanning four years and three different sets of personnel is juxtaposed to create the illusion of a single club set. In other words, a tune recorded in 1990 might be followed by one recorded in 1994, with the changing lineups clearly differentiated as “Band 1,” “Band 2,” or “Band 3.” The audience applause is seamlessly edited, so you don’t know you’re listening to different bands from different years unless you carefully consult the track and personnel breakdown in the booklet.
Unlike the austere Coltrane, who utters not a word on his Vanguard tapes, Marsalis is something of an extrovert, a showman. Each disc begins with his funny, entertaining banter, setting a lively and light-hearted tone. Despite their seriousness of purpose, Wynton and his colleagues have a consistently good time. And oh, can they play. One can fault Wynton for his traditionalism and all the rest, but show me someone who has his horn more together. Listen to his solo on Monk’s “Four In One.” Listen to the killer arrangement, for that matter. Listen to both dazzling takes of “Stardust.” Dig pianist Eric Reed’s revelatory solo on “Knozz-moe-king,” one of Wynton’s early originals. Witness the excitement created by bassist Reginald Veal during his riveting introduction to “Down Home with Homey.” Or the steady heat and light generated by Wessell “Warm Daddy” Anderson on alto and sopranino saxophones and Wycliffe “Pine Cone” Gordon on trombone, or “trambone,” as Wynton routinely pronounces it.
Everything in this collection is arranged and executed with consummate skill. But I tend to prefer the advanced and somewhat dark post-bop sensibility of early pieces such as “Black Codes from the Underground” and “Knozz-moe-king” or later works like “Harriet Tubman” and “The Majesty of the Blues.” Monk tunes are abundant, and also superb. Readings of “Monk’s Mood,” “Reflections,” “Four In One,” “Misterioso,” “Thelonius,” and “Bright Mississippi” ought to bolster Wynton’s reputation as an able interpreter of Monk’s music. On the other hand, epic suites such as “Citi Movement” and “In the Sweet Embrace of Life” — at forty-four and fifty-five minutes, respectively — strike me as bloated, unfocused, and self-indulgent. And tunes like “In the Court of King Oliver” and “Buddy Bolden,” though brilliantly played, are somehow stilted in their didacticism. Wynton wants to convey something of the flavor and folklore of early jazz, but his gestures to the past can come across as imperious and condescending — not to mention repetitive, especially when sprinkled throughout seven CDs of continuous music.
Many have argued that Wynton’s attempts to preserve “The Tradition” come at the expense of innovation and cannot breathe new life into the art form. Wynton-bashing is widespread, and it stems from an aesthetic and political viewpoint that has merit. But let’s not deny the man’s staggering talent and the cultural contributions he’s made. More people are playing and listening to jazz thanks largely to him. In the January 2000 issue of Downbeat
a critic complained of “the Wynton Marsalisification of jazz” throughout the 90s. I can think of worse things. ~David R. Adler, 12/28/99 personnel: Band 1 — Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Wessell Anderson, alto saxophone; Todd Williams, tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinet; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Marcus Roberts, piano; Reginald Veal, bass; Herlin Riley, drums. Band 2 — Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Wessell Anderson, alto and sopranino saxophones; Victor Goines, tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinet; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Eric Reed, piano; Reginald Veal, bass; Herlin Riley, drums. Band 3 — Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Wessell Anderson, alto saxophone; Victor Goines, tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinet; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Eric Reed, piano; Ben Wolfe, bass; Herlin Riley, drums. tracks: Disc 1 — Welcome; Cherokee; The Egyptian Blues; Embraceable You; Black Codes from the Underground; Harriet Tubman; Monk’s Mood; And the Band Played On; The Cat in the Hat is Back; Set Break. Disc 2 — Welcome #2; Uptown Ruler; Down Home with Homey; Reflections; Jig’s Jig; Sometimes It Goes Like That; In A Sentimental Mood; Knozz-moe-king; Set Break. Disc 3 — Welcome #3; Buggy Ride; I’ll Remember April; Stardust; In the Court of King Oliver; Bona & Paul; Four In One; Way Back Blues; Rubber Bottom; Midnight In Paris; Play the Blues and Go; Set Break. Disc 4 — Welcome #4; Pedro’s Getaway; Evidence; Embraceable You; A Long Way; The Arrival; Misterioso; Happy Birthday; The Seductress; Set Break. Disc 5 — Welcome #5; The Majesty of the Blues; Flee as a Bird to the Mountain; Happy Feet Blues; Thelonius; Stardust; Intro to Buddy Bolden; Buddy Bolden; Swing Down Swing Town; Bright Mississippi; Set Break. Disc 6 — Welcome #6; Citi Movement; Winter Wonderland; Brother Veal; Cherokee; Juba and A O’Brown Squaw. Disc 7 — Welcome #7; In the Sweet Embrace of Life; Local Announcements; After All; Final Statement.