He’s still controversial, but recently Wynton Marsalis has seen a bit of a re-evaluation—pointing out that beneath all the bile over his musico-political views, Marsalis is a brilliant and absurdly accomplished musician. His performance last night at the Kennedy Center (sponsored by the Washington Performing Arts Society), with the 14-piece Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, bore that premise out.
The program was designed with the broadest appeal in mind: big band arrangements of two children’s songs (“Old MacDonald Had A Farm” and “Itsy Bitsy Spider”); a rip-roaring, traditional New Orleans blues; and tuneful pieces by Benny Carter, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. A fairly safe setlist, perhaps, but with superlative arrangements tackled by stellar, risk-taking performers. Trombonist Vincent Gardner might be the band’s most gifted arranger (apart from Marsalis himself), turning in gorgeous settings of Kenny Dorham’s “Trompeta Toccata” and Monk’s “Light Blue.” He’s one to watch in the future…as are soloists Marcus Printup (trumpet) and Walter Blanding (saxophone). The former played one of the most flawless solos I’ve ever heard on “Bye-Ya”; the latter has done something entirely fresh on his tenor, emoting confidence and forthrightness while reining in the instrument’s inbred swagger.
As for Marsalis, his trumpet playing was as golden and resourceful as always. One of its overlooked aspects is the absence of cliche in his improvisations (as opposed to the ones in his compositions): he uses standard devices, but always in fresh and startingly original ways. With any luck, his declarative solos last night on “Old MacDonald” and Dorham’s “Stage West” were recorded; they demanded a note-by-note study.
If it’s easy forget Marsalis’ music when raging about his conservatism, it’s also easy to forget his charm. He spent the evening poking fun at his musicians and joshing the audience. Even his (inevitable) cheap shot at Cecil Taylor was funny; explaining how his son had always fallen asleep at concerts when he was little, Marsalis noted that Taylor was excepted: “He stood right up and leaned over the railing, then turned back to me and whispered ‘I can’t believe how many people are showing up to listen to this!‘”
Now that the “Jazz War” controversy is fading a bit, giving way to the knowledge that tradition and progression are both vital, Marsalis’ value is becoming clear. His “conservative” music is sui generis, and he’s a mentor to dozens of younger players like the ones who shone last night. No matter what you think of Wynton’s musical views, nobody without great talent and skill gets as far as he has. See him when you can.