Marsalis jazzes up Spaulding

by Christopher Danforth | 10/29/01 6:00am

Do not ever let anyone tell you that Wynton Marsalis is not the greatest musician in our galaxy. Wynton is a trumpet player and jazz composer from the Marsalis family (of Ellis and Branford), leader of a big band and jazz septet, artistic director of New York City's Jazz at Lincoln Center and father of three. Many of those who heard him play last night at Spaulding Auditorium also believe him to be an extraterrestrial.

The Marsalis Septet itself is a radical combo of Doctors of music, college age jazz kids, and an international celebrity. The members of the horn section, made up of a trumpet, trombone, an alto and tenor saxophone, all have post-doctorate degrees in performance or jazz theory. Playing alongside these venerable jazz scholars are a pianist and drummer who are scarcely older than many of our classmates. Following the tradition of Art Blakey, who nurtured Wynton in his early years, Marsalis takes promising jazz musicians under his wing as a way of educating the next generation of jazz players.

The concert itself was sold out in a matter of hours when tickets went on sale back at the beginning of the month, a simple testament to the fact that the man is superhuman. He began the show with "Stardust," a duet with bassist Kengo Nakamura, not on stage, but wandering around among the aisles, blowing whichever melodies came into his head. Back onstage, he revealed to us in the audience that they had decided to play "Stardust" because their soundman, "Joe," had been humming it backstage just before they went on. Hmm.

Not that they played all of their music out of their heads. Impropvised solos are an integral part of jazz and, thus all of Marsalis's music, but he is also an arranger and composer and his ensembles play off charts. When it was time for one of the horn solos, the other three would walk back behind the rhythm section for the duration of the solo, and the soloist would close his eyes and start to bounce and rock in his own way. Clearly the most masterful technician, Marsalis made his solos the highlight of the show. Especially beautiful was his rendition of Gershwin's "Embraceable You" right before intermission. Along with his piano, Wynton played so soft and mellow it sounded like one long sigh.

The second half of the program was a performance of John Coltrane's four part suite, "A Love Supreme," arguably the best jazz recording of all time. And here, Marsalis peaked. Not only did he display his technical virtuosity, articulation and circular breathing (this is that famous trick where the trumpet player breathes in while continuing to blow a high D -- yes, it can be done), but he showed understanding of the Jazz Heritage. As an educator and historian, Marsalis defines "Jazz" by its history and the musicians who made it. He studies the work of Handel as much as the music of Armstrong, and in performing "A Love Supreme," he payed homage to Coltrane and also jazz music itself.