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Wynton Marsalis

Troy Savings Bank Music Hall
November 2, 2005

By J Hunter

Just when you think you've seen it all, something comes along to rumple your comfort zone. Try this on for size:

Wynton Marsalis - his trumpet floating high and free and beautiful through the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall - leading his quintet through the scratches and whirls of Ornette Coleman's “Sadness”.

Yes, that Ornette Coleman.

Yes, that Wynton Marsalis - the man who built Jazz @ Lincoln Center on a foundation of neo-classicism, and who (along with the genre's self-appointed ombudsman, Stanley Crouch) used Ken Burns' Jazz to damn bebop with faint praise and outright bitch-slap yeomen of the avant-garde.

Wynton doing Ornette is like Jimmy Swaggert singing Ozzy Osbourne's greatest hits, and Wynton knew it. He tried to explain this “unexpected” musical choice away as he walked the stage, natty as hell in a herringbone three-piece suit. “To me, scrambled eggs is avant-garde,” he informed us. “Louis Armstrong's avant-garde. Nobody can play like him…”

While the last statement may be true to the definition of the phrase, it still sounded like spin to me, and the amount of spin we get in our diet nowadays is way over the minimum daily requirement. The fact is, Marsalis' take on Coleman's haunting tone poem was as beautiful as it was gut-wrenching. Something that good shouldn't need explanation. But Wynton is tied too closely to the school of jazz that loudly proclaims, “Satch invented it. Duke perfected it. That said it.” So out came the spin.

Marsalis didn't need to spin the rest of the knockout two-set performance, which favored originals compositions over standards. Wynton kicked off the evening with the suite-like title track from The Magic Hour, his first disc for Blue Note. And while I found the piece's changes to be ham-handed at best, they each gave Marsalis' bandmates time to shine. I won't say stretch, because the sense of constraint was palpable with each song; however the quality of the musicianship more than made up for the matrix that bound it.

Ali Jackson was the other composer on stage. His imaginative drum solos and fills made every number dance, and his partnership with ex-Terence Blanchard bassist Carlos Henriquez gave the music a rock-hard bottom; Marsalis soloed directly to Jackson almost as much as he did to the audience, knowing his notes would reach the sellout crowd in this acoustically perfect hall. (At one point during vocalist Jennifer Sanon's portion of the set, the playful Marsalis soloed from behind Henriquez' left shoulder, like a sniper shooting from cover.) And while Walter Blandings' solos on tenor and soprano sax rarely strayed from the textbook, Dan Nimmer swung it like he invented it; his fire-breathing solos on “The Magic Hour” and “Skipping” proved he's the best keyboardist Marsalis has had since his days in VSOP2, when some guy named Hancock held the piano chair.

Sanon deserves a paragraph all her own. Between songs, this was a nervous 20-year old in a full-length spaghetti-strap dress. But literally from the moment she counted in the band for the three standards that covered her portion of the second set, this Essentially Ellington award winner had the sound, the bearing, and the self-assurance of a young Billie Holliday. This is especially fitting, since the band's encore was the Holliday chestnut, “Comes Love.” Someone needs to record this girl right now; I just hope it happens in a nurturing environment that respects her love of real jazz. We don't need another Norah Jones or Lizz Wright. Just one Jennifer Sanon will do just fine.

Yes, I have problems with Wynton Marsalis, but it's with Wynton the politician, not Wynton the musician. I've said many times that Marsalis is one of the best musicians of my generation, and he lived up to that this night, producing well-formed solos that could float like a butterfly or sting like a bee, depending on his purpose. If I saw more of the musician and less of the politician, maybe I'd like Marsalis more. I sure liked him on this night, even with the spin.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.