Consider the odd case of Wynton Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Pulitzer Prize–winner and Ken Burns poster child, who over the past decade has consolidated his position as the official face of jazz at about the same rate that he’s been disappearing as an influential stylistic force within the inner sanctum of jazz players and critics. Indeed, his near-obscene recorded output in 1999-some 15 CD’s released in all-was met not just with commercial indifference, but was widely credited with helping sink Columbia’s jazz division.
For the past few years, Mr. Marsalis has been releasing his long-form, more orchestrally minded works on the Sony Classical label, which seems like a safer course. In a world where serious living classical composers exist on the margins of academia and arts subsidy, and sales vigor is supplied by the Titanic soundtrack and Charlotte Church, surely Mr. Marsalis can do no harm.
Actually, with his latest, the double CD All Rise , he does better than that. With this album, Mr. Marsalis challenges us to put aside any leftover ill will we may harbor from the 80’s, when the media hype and his cocksure persona made for an annoying combination, and the 90’s, when he tried our patience with such overlong and, at times, overblown compositions as In This House, On This Morning and Blood on the Fields .
All Rise began life as one of four pieces commissioned by Kurt Masur to celebrate the new century, and was performed by the New York Philharmonic and Mr. Marsalis’ Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in December of 1999. But the recording of this work did not take place until almost two years later, during the disturbed and disconnected days that followed Sept. 11. On Sept. 13, Mr. Marsalis’ jazz ensemble, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and no less than three vocal choirs all struggled to sort themselves out onstage for a concert performance of All Rise and, the following day, in an L.A. recording studio. The results, under these circumstances or any other, are remarkable.
As a composer, Mr. Marsalis lives and dies by ambition. He treats each composition as an opportunity to set down what’s he learned about life and music up to that point. It’s a working method that tolerates jumble, repetition and, in the case of In This House, On This Morning and Blood on the Fields , are cycling of traditional African-American religious tropes that sometimes feel more righteous than musically interesting. All Rise is the most ambitious yet, a 12-movement three-part work that, on a grand scale, mimics the structure of the 12-bar blues and, according to Mr. Marsalis, explores the eternal blues themes of good times, hard times, and ultimate acceptance and redemption. In a word, All Rise is life, rendered with an expansive blues palette that includes Scotch-Irish reels, Latin clave dance rhythms and, according to the liner notes, Chinese parade music.
It sounds like a fine recipe for an unholy mess. But the audacious first few seconds of the first movement-a collective chant whose weird low-register multiphonics more closely resemble Tuvan throat-singing than a gospel choir-suggest that Mr. Marsalis will be working at the top of his game.
Indeed, the entire four-movement first section is a tour de force of radical juxtaposition, moving from lush movie-score strings to elegant jazz swing to a sophisticated layering of American folk themes. For once, orchestra players and jazz soloists have been provided with, if not a common language, then a complementary one.
As critics love to point out, Mr. Marsalis is not a master of the memorable melody, nor has he shown the patience to develop his melodic and harmonic materials at leisure. All Rise practically hits you over the head with its quick-cut interestingness, but after waving the flag for the Knitting Factory’s postmodern pasticheurs , I can hardly bring myself to damn him on that score. I’ll say only that Mr. Marsalis’ frantic pace of invention flags somewhat over the course of a very long piece, and some overfamiliar gambits-the gospel bits and pieces, the too-charming reeds writing meant to suggest the dance between the sexes, the jazz homage to trains-begin to cloy. Still, it’s a hell of a ride-an integration, to use Mr. Marsalis’ one-word thematic summation, of “high” musical culture and the “low” vernacular, in the best tradition of Copland and Bernstein. Of course, All Rise is meant to celebrate the millennium, not the mid-century, but let’s not quibble. It’s time Wynton Marsalis the composer got his due.