He and She
First Appeared in The Music Box, May 2009, Volume 16, #5
Written by John Metzger
Tue May 5, 2009, 05:30 AM CDT
No matter how wide-ranging his output has been, there is no doubt that, when Wynton Marsalisí approach is distilled to its barest essence, it consistently has been steeped in jazz tradition. In fact, Marsalis has spent so much time trying to educate the masses about the musicians and icons that have informed his work that he sometimes has had a tendency to seem a little too bookish for his own good. Although Marsalis maintains his love affair with old-time styles throughout his latest set He and She, the manner in which he frames the affair ultimately makes the fun that he and his ensemble are having, as they explore the early roots of the jazz oeuvre, quite palpable. It is, perhaps, the most accessible and immediately entertaining endeavor that he has made in a while.
In recent years, Marsalis increasingly has bound his albums together with thematic concepts. Not only did he tailor Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson specifically to serve as the soundtrack for a PBS documentary by Ken Burns, but he also used From the Plantation to the Penitentiary to highlight the social and political ills befalling his nation. Clearly, Marsalis believes in the causes he supports. Likewise, he has taken his role as the jazz worldís premiere ambassador to heart. In this regard, He and She isnít any different from its predecessors. In the liner notes for the set, Marsalis identifies the styles in which he chose to write each composition. The underlying notion that ties everything together is his exploration of the relationship between men and women.
This isnít a new topic for Marsalis to tackle either. A decade ago, he wrote music for the ballet Sweet Release, and although he employs a similar storyline on He and She, he changes the emphasis slightly by focusing not upon the need to overcome the temptations that threaten relationships but rather upon the emotions that gush forth over the course of one. Taking their cue directly from the tale that is told, Marsalis and his ensemble deftly navigate through the twists and turns of a lifelong love affair. Wandering from self-doubt to giddy joy, the group establishes moods and tones that are as playful and spirited as they are romantic.
Marsalis likely will take some flak for interspersing his compositions with brief, poetic interludes. These spoken-word segments, however, help to define He and Sheís overarching narrative as well as to bring a sense of order to the affair by smoothing the transitions among the many styles he incorporated into the fabric of the albumís architecture. At times, the music pulses with white-hot electricity, while other moments are soft and graceful. Latin flourishes brush against ragtime grooves, and showing his sense of humor, Marsalis sculpts an impressionistic four-part suite from First Crush, First Slow Dance, First Kiss, and First Time.
Marsalis has always been an extraordinarily skilled instrumentalist, and he typically has surrounded himself with a stellar cast of supporting musicians. Nevertheless, he often also has been sidetracked by his underlying need to fulfill some greater, larger-than-life goal, one which remained outside his reach because he was so blinded by the intensity of his focus that he lost sight of the bigger picture. With He and She, Marsalis has succeeded in liberating his artistic vision from his professorial inclinations. As a result, he has crafted an album that has the power to educate because instead of feeling like a stuffy, doctoral thesis, it is loose, freewheeling, and wildly entertaining.
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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