The Skainish One

On the Saturday night, Wynton Marsalis sat in with Marcus’ trio.

I can’t tell you how happy I was to witness it.  Wynton has always been a source of discomfort for me, and not because I don’t like him.

It seems to me that there are three types of people that don’t like Wynton Marsalis, or rather three reasons that people who I consider honest seem to give me(my common sense can’t allow for the possibility that sour grapes doesn’t have some weight).   The most reasonable reason is that he took, and continues to take, bread off of the table for many types of musicians, when Jazz was barely supporting it’s most celebrated musicians.  The second is genuinely musical, some people can speak at length as to why they do not like his playing, sometimes despite even liking or loving his band mates or concept.  The third is due to the assertion that he doesn’t or never has played Jazz and doesn’t really improvise, or that his concept is stuck in the mire of the past.

I can’t comment on the first reason.  I don’t know what the environment in the early 80s was really like, nor can anyone under thirty or so.  I can understand how infuriating it would be to be an established artist who got pushed aside because a 20-year-old star spoke from the pulpit against your music and had the public actually listen.  Like the quote says, “He took bread off the table”.  That rings pretty loudly.

Musically, I can’t really comment either.  I really like his playing; he has a way to really get fiery, more so than every trumpet player in that style since Woody Shaw, for my money.  I also feel like he has one of the strongest feels around, personal, light, and swinging.  Of course his command of the trumpet is obvious, but I also like the concepts that he and his band introduced to the mainstream in the 80s: metric modulation, burnout playing, cue systems, and listening based structured improvisation.  A lot of people have glossed over these elements in favor of the same old, same old.  In my experience, a lot of younger players don’t even know that Marsalis popularized these in the first place, thinking that all of his old records sound like his current ones.

I can’t really comment on the third reason either.  Most of the people who cite this reason are either over sixty and have attained either legendary or venerable veteran status, or they are ignorant youngsters who have never listened to more than two Wynton records, and perhaps had a teacher who taught them when they were really young to hate Marsalis.  For example, in checking any number of videos by Stanley Crouch on YouTube, I saw that over half of the comments said something like, “Wynton can’t play jazz, he’s never improvised a note in his life”.  Anyone who says that without some qualification qualifies as ignorant in my book.

Despite my brow being often furrowed by this, it sure doesn’t stop me from sitting back and enjoying the gig whenever I see him.  To my eternal dismay, I showed up late for this particular set, only hearing three tunes.  I recognized the tunes, all originals of the band’s, but can’t put a name to any of them.  Stylistically, they fit rather snugly into Wynton’s vibe of the last few years with his quintet.

Instantly, I became aware of how much both men were listening to each other.  Something I’ve been thinking about recently is the ability to react as well as listen.  When Jazz musicians are younger, you can tell that they’re on a positive path if they acknowledge that the other musicians are affecting them at all.  In the professional world, it comes down to being able to hear through what people are playing to highlight specific points of people’s playing, and also know how to respond, perhaps to finish the phrase, or to add a pinch of whatever spice the dish required at that time.  That’s what makes a Sonny Rollins trade or a piercing Andrew Hill chord so magical.  They not only hear everything, but know when to respond and how.

Wynton is actually somewhat of a specialist in this area.  He has unbelievable ears, and bolsters performances such as these by playing with people that he has long-standing relationships with, such as his family, or his quintets.  Now, Marcus probably has even better ears than Wynton, and his twenty some year rapport with him doesn’t hurt.  The music created was quite something.

Whether it was the both of them playing complimenting lines, or Marcus placing the perfect chord in the perfect space left by Wynton, it was like rehearsed ballet.  The few times when different rhythmic figures or levels of time were apparent, the lock up was incredible.  It was one of those rare times where both musicians were at once daring and responsive.  Something to see.

Another thing that I feel should be noted is that Wynton actually came to the gig.  I was backstage.  I happen to know(and I hope I don’t get JALC lawyers calling because of this…) that Wynton didn’t get paid for the set.  Now, say what you will about Wynton Marsalis, he is a busy man.  He has two bands to run full time, one of which involves being musical director of the largest organization in Jazz.  He writes about a big band chart a week.  He has kept up world class trumpet chops for thirty years.  He constantly does outreach with children, tours the world 9 months a year, is the CBS cultural correspondent, lectures at Harvard, and still somehow has time to tape a radio show every Saturday.  He is a busy man, but he still can come down to sit in with Marcus.  It’s a cool gesture at the very least.

However, it brings up the obvious points as well.  Why the hell don’t these guys play together?  I was asking myself among some colleagues the other day which musicians I would pay 100 dollars to see for an hour.  My answers were obvious, Charlie Haden and Ornette, Herbie and Ron, The Now He Sings Now He Sobs Band(I’m shocked and appalled that this didn’t actually happen during Chick’s residency.  You want to talk about sold out shows?), Circle, among others.  But also on that list would be the Live at the Blues Alley band.  As I’ve said before, Wynton always ends his shows with Knozz-Moe, and it’s always the best part of the night by a factor of ten.  It’s not like he has forgotten how to play that way, and it doesn’t seem to displease him in any way.  In fact, his current rhythm section tightens up quicker than in any other situation as soon as the theme is played.  So why not get that band together and keep developing that music?  All of those musicians are alive and very well. He has his reasons, which I can’t fully understand of course, but the fanboy in me feels that he’s done a ton for his vision of the music in the public eye, and for the history.  Now it’s time for him to go to work again.  Of course he and every musician he’s worked with in the past 15 years would disagree, but I feel that since he’s still a bad cat, show that off.  There aren’t many who can get that fiery.

Thus ends the Marcus Odyssey!  After weeks it’s still fresh in my head.  Next post will be a review of Tony Malaby playing with (Gasp!) Canadians.  After that, it’s back to business with a theory-intensive post about Frank Foster, which will include three lifts.  There may be some cute little reviews mixed in, including the powerhouse duet of Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach.  Ethan with Sam Newsome this weekend, paying homage to the best thing ever, Mal Waldron with Steve Lacy.  There will be some Jacob peppered in, and then although there are some 4th quarter decisions to be made, I may go see Matt Wilson at Dizzy’s on Friday.  Ten bucks, what could go wrong?  Last time at these Onion Dizzy’s student nights I won three CDs in a trivia contest.  I do hope that I win 3 Matt Wilson CDs.

“I was playing a game of pinochle with Ray Brown and Art Tatum.  Art, (who was mostly blind) only had to look at his cards once until he had them memorized.  He was a great pinochle player, and played it all the time.  One time, Ray was losing so badly that he decided to cheat Art, and tell him that a different card was played  then was actually on the table.  As soon as he said it, Art grabbed Ray’s hand as quickly as can be and said, ‘Mr. Brown!  The last person to do that to me is still receiving compensation!’  Art won that game.” —Oscar Peterson

MASSIVE Art Tatum news coming up.  I’ll keep you in the loop.

—Martin

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~ by Martin Porter on February 29, 2012.

4 Responses to “The Skainish One”

  1. Well written. I think Wynton is very misinterpreted mainly because his opions are so strong. I never understoood why cats bash him so much. Everything he does is MUSICAL which is what its all about in the end.

  2. So many people would disagree with that statement. Some of them are respected musicians, people that I greatly admire, even.

  3. Martin, which part of the prior statement do you mean: That his opinions are so strong strong or that he’s not musical? Or both?

    I’m a subscriber and have thoroughly enjoyed your posts on this subject. Perhaps I’m naive, but I think the “bashing” has gone down quite a bit the last several years.

  4. The opinions are strong, no one doubts that!

    Many musicians I know maintain that their only reason for disliking Wynton is on musical grounds.

    Also, I can only speak from what I’ve seen in person and in print, along with judging his musical merits based on my experience. However, bashing of him has now changed from the press-laden stuff of the late 80s and early 90s to a couple of strong-willed camps. I thought that bashing had come down too, until I asked some older musicians in Toronto and Ft Lauderdale about it, and experienced it in New York. Take Mr. Lawrence’s (A working musician in the New York area) statement that cats bash him so much. Unfortunately, it seems to me that on the other side, there are so many people that just take Marsalis’ “genius”(or whatever term you please) for granted, which is just as bad as outright disregarding or bashing him, for my money.

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