Recording of March 1991: Tune In Tomorrow

WYNTON MARSALIS: Tune In Tomorrow (soundtrack)
Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Alvin Batiste, Dr. Michael White, clarinet; Wes Anderson, Harvey Estrin, alto sax; Todd Williams, tenor & soprano sax, clarinet; Joe Temperley, baritone sax; Herb Harris, tenor sax; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Marcus Roberts, piano; Warren Bernhardt, Lucky Peterson, organ; Reginald Veal, bass; Herlin Riley, drums; Johnny Adams, Shirley Horn, vocals
Columbia CK 47044 (CD only). Tim Geelan, eng.; Steve Epstein, Delfeayo Marsalis, prods. DDD. TT: 63:37

The Rethinking of Wynton Marsalis: Part XVIII Designer Jazz, Yuppie Jazz, Armani Jazz, Squeaky-Clean Jazz, Correct Jazz: Wynton Marsalis's music has been called all these things, and there's a common subtext: Marsalis is a stylist, but no innovator; ten years into his solo career, it's a good bet he never will be. Though his music often surprises, it's the surprise of calculated cleverness rather than the unpredictable shouts of the soul. I doubt if Marsalis ever surprises himself. He's a refiner, a summarizer, a wrapper-up of jazz history.

Comparing WM to, say, Miles Davis is like comparing an accurate, impeccably researched, sumptuously realized, perfectly acted costume drama to the actual slice of history it attempts to represent—there's that quality of deliberateness, of costumery, no matter how naturally worn, that has always infused WM's music. Always, in his playing, there's a feeling of "as if"—ie, "This is what I'd play if I really played jazz." And in all this, I'm haunted by the words of Coalhouse Walker Jr. in Ragtime: "I play so good white folks think I'm fakin' it"; or what Mark Twain said of Wagner's music: "it's not as good as it sounds."

Fascinating and entertaining as it is, Miles Davis and Gil Evans could never have made Tune In Tomorrow; more to the point, they never would have wanted to. Wynton Marsalis is not jazz's Next Big Thing, and never will be. But he is jazz's premier archivist, popularizer, and establisher of canons of jazz taste. Marsalis's playing has always seemed furiously intent on doing the musically right thing, as opposed to the emotionally real thing; and the fact that the individualities of his bands' members have so seldom been allowed to soar is telling. I think of his records in terms of effort, not inspiration; of skill, not joy; of labor, not fun.

But after all that, Tune In Tomorrow, Marsalis's soundtrack (his first) to the film of the same name, manages to fuse all these oppositions. The music, all Marsalis's own except for "I Can't Get Started," is virtually nothing but fun—leering, half-drunk, baggy-pants fun that manages to somehow retain a pixilated poise.

Marsalis has done his usual workaholic homework, and the album is remarkably rich—highlights are slower tunes like "Crescent City Crawl" (the film is set in New Orleans) and "Alligator Tail Drag," and the deliberately prissy cocktail jazz of "Social Soft Shoe." "Alligator," a slow blues grind, sounds more than anything else I've heard from Marsalis like a musical conversation, the octet Amen-ing on the cadences to the testifying trumpet. Between the choruses is a palpable silence of assent among the players.

There are also big-band charts, soap-opera organ, Ellingtonia, Basiedom, hothouse flowers like "The Ways of Love," and even a taste of Albanian wedding music. Totally entertaining—if Marsalis is funnin' me, this is exactly how I like to be funned. Of course, the other half of me thinks its all so goddamn tasteful it could be the next Woody Allen soundtrack. I'm torn between my love of classic surface gloss and my hunger for substance. Marsalis promises both, but I'm still not sure he delivers.

It's not until the very last of the 16 tracks, "Double Rondo on the River," that all coy masks and Mardis Gras feathers and sequins are doffed. Appropriately, it's the longest track, the meatiest, and the most recognizeable to Marsalis fans.

Nor does it hurt that this is the most natural-sounding recording yet for Wynton. I know, I say that every time, but, really, the production styles of WM albums have gradually—very gradually—improved since the early '80s. (Never fear, CBS- and digital-bashers—there's still a long way to go.) "Alligator" does sound as if it was eight musicians in one room—an anechoic chamber, maybe, but still one room.

I haven't seen Tune In Tomorrow, and just as well—following the music with Marsalis's liner notes is almost as delightful as doing the same with last year's Crescent City Christmas Card. And, like my review of that disc, I end this piece the same way: regardless of whether you see Wynton Marsalis as crucial or merely important to the present and future of jazz, or simply one of CBS's finer marketing coups, Tune In Tomorrow will not bore you.—Richard Lehnert