Sharps & flats

Wynton Marsalis was born with a silver trumpet in his mouth. Maybe that's why his jazz compositions are so stiffly academic.

By Seth Mnookin
Published August 17, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Wynton Marsalis doesn't feel your pain.

The cherub-faced trumpeter was crowned the savior of jazz almost two decades ago, when he was still a fresh-scrubbed boy cutting his teeth with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, and he's been on an upward trajectory ever since. Born into a jazz family (his father is pianist Ellis Marsalis; his brothers include saxophonist Branford and drummer Jason), Wynton is, for many, the face of jazz in America today. He heads the hugely influential, and well-endowed, Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and has played with everyone from the Muppets to Placido Domingo. By any account, he's had it relatively easy ... and perhaps this is the reason so many of his projects sound more like academic explorations than the primal exorcisms that are at the heart of the best American music of the century. Jazz, arguably more than any other genre of popular music, finds its emotional base in the blues, and the blues finds its base in pain.

"Sweet Release & Ghost Story," the fifth release of Marsalis' pretentiously ambitious, six-month, seven-disc "Swinging Into the 21st" project (with an eighth installment due out in the spring of 2000), is a pair of ballets the trumpeter wrote for Alvin Ailey choreographer Judith Jamison. It's the best offering so far in the series; everything thus far, from the paralyzingly restrained "Marsalis Plays Monk" to last month's emotionally empty, big-band-orchestrated "Big Train," has fallen more or less flat.

Still, the modest success of "Sweet Release" occurs because it is the result of a very academic exercise: composing music to fit a previously conceived drama. Working from a fairly rigid outline, Marsalis moves the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra -- the best working jazz orchestra in the world right now -- through a series of carefully delineated portraits. Starting with Marsalis' bent-note, searing, solo introduction, "Sweet Release" tells the story of two tempestuous lovers; its pieces range from the Latin-flavored, sexually charged "Church Basement: Party" to the almost maudlin "Home: Give Me Your Hand." Marsalis' clarion tone is always beautiful, and he works his orchestra to often-wonderful effect, using Wycliffe Gordon's booming tuba as the lead bass instrument in places, and taking advantage of a quartet of fluid saxophonists for some spirited interplay. If nothing else, Marsalis has certainly mastered the art of composing for oversized outfits, moving his troops deftly through 4/4 swings, ballads and blues.

"Ghost Story," performed by a quartet without Marsalis, is even better. The piece starts with a classically influenced solo introduction by pianist Eric Lewis, and keeps this high-minded focus throughout the movement's eight numbers. "Tango," while not likely to give the late Astor Piazzolla a run for his money, is still unavoidably appealing, with saxophonist Ted Nash and Lewis at turns playful, seductive and cunning. And "2nd Blues" is one of the better blues tunes of the whole series thus far, with bassist Carlito Henriquez and Nash highlighting a ribald number.

Still, this collection is, at best, enjoyable. Like most of Marsalis' work, it's rarely breathtaking, eschewing daring leaps and naked displays for technical prowess and pedantic explorations. In his liner notes to the album, cultural critic Stanley Crouch calls Marsalis the best composer to arrive in jazz since the death of Duke Ellington. Thank God he's wrong.

Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

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