Standards & Ballads
First Appeared in The Music Box, January 2008, Volume 15, #1
Written by John Metzger
Mon January 14, 2008, 03:10 PM CST
Thereís no doubt that Wynton Marsalisí initial success was hinged entirely upon the jazz communityís growing dissatisfaction with the insular and overly self-indulgent fusion movement. After leveraging his collaborations with Art Blakey and Herbie Hancock into a record deal with Columbia, Marsalis proceeded, over the course of the next two decades, to install himself quite firmly as the leading ambassador to the genreís forgotten legacy. Not only was this a role that needed to be filled, but it also was one to which Marsalis has proven himself to be remarkably well suited, even if, at the same time, he has taken some unnecessary flak for his unwavering focus upon instructing the masses. If his recent, socially minded foray From the Plantation to the Penitentiary is any indication, he currently is in the process of using his much-deserved prominence to provoke even greater changes in the world at large. Now, then, is as good a time as any to revisit his classicist ruminations, which is precisely the point of his latest retrospective Standards & Ballads.
Consistently, Marsalis has professed the point of view that itís important to know the history of jazz in order to move it forward. Although he is, at least in part, a disciple of Miles Davis, he has never had any interest in the electrified rumblings that were sparked by the restless trumpeterís experimentations on In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, and the very mention of On the Corner probably gives him nightmares. Instead, he plucked what he needed from the repertoire that Davis was employing in concert around the time of Seven Steps to Heaven. From there, Marsalis has marched backward through the ages, absorbing the works of Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin into his musical persona.
Between 1987 and 1999, Marsalis issued five albums under the Standard Time heading. Although they featured a handful of original compositions, they largely were composed of songs on which all of the jazz artists that he admired had cut their teeth. Not surprisingly, these outings serve as the primary source of material for his latest compilation Standards & Ballads. Considering how many times the tunes that Marsalis was unearthing have been covered, however, one easily could argue that there was nothing left to say about them and, hence, that there was no need for him to offer his own interpretations. Nevertheless, as he tenaciously strolled through the past, he created an effective reminder of what had been left behind, and to many in the jazz world, his pursuits provided a welcome breath of fresh air.
Culling material not just from his Standard Time series but also from Think of One and Hot House Flowers, two of his formative solo recordings, Standards & Ballads presents a fascinating examination of Marsalisí development as an artist. The orchestrations that adorn his rendition of Hoagy Carmichaelís Stardust, for example, donít fit nearly as comfortably with the music put forth by him and his ensemble as those surrounding his interpretation of the Frank Sinatra hit I Guess Iíll Hang My Tears Out to Dry, which he issued 14 years later. Still, even on Stardust, itís readily apparent that Marsalis possessed a dynamic range, a wonderful tone, and a level of control, all of which then were missing from the jazz community. While turning his vision into reality, he adjusted his approach and learned how to use his work to connect and communicate more efficiently with his audience. As his positively breathtaking excursions through When Itís Sleepytime Down South and Reflections proved, his point wasnít really to create something shiny and new, so much as it was to conjure the distant past and give it a familiar but distinctively original voicing. Marsalis might not always have been successful, but Standards & Ballads easily makes the case that what he provided was an opportunity to climb back in time and hear the classics with fresh ears. Ĺ
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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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