Recording of September 1988: CBS's Serious-Suited Young Jazzmen

Wynton Marsalis Quartet: Live at Blues Alley
Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Marcus Roberts, piano; Robert Leslie Hurst III, bass; Jeff Watts, drums
Knozz-Moe-King (4 takes), Juan (3 takes), Just Friends, Cherokee, Delfeayo's Dilemma, Chambers of Tain, Au Privave, Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans, Autumn Leaves, Skain's Domain, Much Later
Columbia PC2 40675 (2 LPs), C2K 40675 (2 CDs). Tim Geelan, eng.; Steve Epstein, prod. DDA/DDD. TT: 117:39

Branford Marsalis: Random Abstract
Branford Marsalis, saxes; Kenny Kirkland, piano; Delbert Felix, bass; Lewis Nash, drums
Yes and No, Crescent City, Broadway Fools, LonJellis, I Thought About You, Lonely Woman, Steep's Theme, Yesterday's,* Crepuscule With Nellie*
Columbia OC 44055 (LP), CK 44055 (CD*). Tomoo Suzuki, eng.; Delfeayo Marsalis, prod. ADA/ADD. TTs: 58:46, 74:10*

Harrison/Blanchard: Black Pearl
Terence Blanchard, trumpet; Donald Harrison, saxes; Cyrus Chestnut, piano; Reginald Veal, bass; Carl Allen, drums
Selim Sivad, Black Pearl, Ninth Ward Strut, Infinite Heart, The Center Piece, Somewhere, Dizzy Gillespie's Hands, Toni, Birth of the Abstract
Columbia FC 44216 (LP), CK 44216 (CD). Tim Williams, eng.; George Butler, prod. ADA/ADD. TT: 53:09

"Jazz isn't dead—it just smells funny," said Frank Zappa in 1974. Back then, in those dark days of Fusion, one could be forgiven for thinking that jazz's greatest years were over, that the form had died, or at least mutated enough, in its wooing of the huge, bucks-wielding rock audience, to be unrecognizable, or at least unlovable. Then, in 1982, fresh from Art Blakey's band (Blakey remains a seemingly bottomless well of fresh young talent; Harrison/Blanchard, too, worked with him), Wynton Marsalis's eponymous debut LP was released. This was possibly one of the most important jazz releases of all time, not so much because of its musical content as its stylistic choices: intelligent, hard-edged, fully fledged acoustic jazz in the style of Miles Davis's second great quintet. Marsalis, in fact, used most of that quintet on half of that release, the other half his new band of Kirkland, Watts, Moffatt, and brother Branford.

But the return to that classic style of acoustic music by unsmiling young black men in dark suits and ties and no African names, would have remained an anomaly had not the music been so relentlessly excellent, so impeccably crafted and intensely played. Regardless of what you ultimately think and feel about Wynton Marsalis's music—and it is, if not universally loved, at least universally respected—he, more than any other single person, is responsible for the miraculous resurgence of serious acoustic jazz in the 1980s, of which the bands of Branford Marsalis and Harrison/Blanchard are now, perhaps, even more important than his own.

What then, exactly, do you need to know about these recordings? Only that all are excellent; that there are no wrong choices to be made in choosing one over the other; that you should buy all three; that you'll be hearing some of the finest jazz ever recorded. Three different kinds of '60s/'80s jazz are presented here, all recognizable as different stages of Miles's second quintet of Shorter, Hancock, Carter, and Williams: Wynton mines the early, hard-blowing vein of Plugged Nickel and Heard 'Round the World; Branford jumps all over the place, but seems centered in Four and More and Miles Smiles; while Harrison/Blanchard move out of these areas, explored in their previous albums, to the rarefied, oblique musings of Nefertiti, Sorcerer, and Miles in the Sky. Taking them in turn . . .

Wynton's position as the man who has singlehandedly turned jazz around is a difficult one which he, by his public statements, has made even more so. I read the jazz press. I talk to jazz musicians. Whatever respect Marsalis garners these days seems increasingly begrudged. People are tired of the hype, the endless Grammys, Marsalis's musical and sartorial stylistic conservatism, his tireless pontifications. All these reservations make sense to me, too. Until I listen to his music.

The fact is, no-one else is making music like this. No-one ever did, notwithstanding the accusations of "Throwback!" and "Museum piece!" Marsalis is doing exactly what he's always claimed: making new statements in the established jazz language of classic black American music. And I realized something else while listening to Blues Alley—whatever the dimensions of Marsalis's egomania, he keeps it out of his playing and bandleading.

The Wynton Marsalis Quartet recorded here has since been replaced by an entirely new (and, as yet, inferior) band. Recorded December 19 and 20, 1986, the tapes constitute the first group's swansong. It'll be hard to top—this band may well be remembered as one of the three or four greatest jazz groups of all time.

As impressive and formidable as Marsalis's talents as a trumpeter, arranger, and bandleader have been from the beginning, I've always been bothered by a pervasive tight-assedness in his playing—the guy never seemed to just let loose and blow. In a live club setting, I thought, I'd get to hear a hotter side of this master of premeditated cool. Marsalis and his new band came to Santa Fe in April, but the music was still so . . . careful, particularly Marsalis's own playing. Live at Blues Alley is something else again.

Marcus Roberts has come fully into his own. His furious intelligence shouts of McCoy Tyner, but he seems more flexible, more lyrical, without Tyner's excessive reliance on that patented wall of piano sound. While listening, there were times when I squirmed in my seat, trying to absorb all of this man's thick, rich, dense playing at once, but there is too much of it.


Allen Fant's picture

Many Thanks! to Stereophile for re-visiting these records/recordings of the month.

Please keep posting this information, as I no longer have these older magazines.