Review by Jean Timmons
Wynton Marsalis is jazz royalty, which, to many folk, is a bit of an oxymoron; but a case can be made for the claim. From the beginning, the gods granted him certain privileges. He was born in New Orleans, the cradle of jazz in the U.S. His father, Ellis Marsalis, is an accomplished jazz pianist and educator, who has been Director of Jazz Studies at the University of New Orleans for a number of years. He has three other siblings who have excelled as jazz musicians. When he was six, Al Hirt gave him his first trumpet. At twelve, he began studying classical music. He served an apprenticeship with Art Blakey to consolidate his jazz chops. His style—lovely sound, admirable range, brilliant control, intellectual grasp of any material he played—quickly became identifiable. From that august beginning, he has not disappointed in his many endeavors. For example, Marsalis was the first instrumentalist to win simultaneously Grammy awards in Jazz (Best Soloist) and Classical Music (Best Soloist with Orchestra) categories; and he became the Artistic Director of Jazz at New York’s Lincoln Center, in 1992. So perhaps, tongue-in-cheek slightly, brother Branford’s foray into pop rock music with Sting was just not a suitable endeavor for the Marsalis clan—or at least not for Wynton and crotchety critic Stanley Crouch. At this stage in his career, Wynton Marsalis appears bound to go beyond Ellington in extending jazz’s reach into classical, or “serious,” music, into leading the planet’s citizenry to unity through music. And like the royal Ellington, what better way to do that then to write the music and promote it. Such is the case with Marsalis’ latest creation—All Rise.
File photo by Phil Bonyata
The performances of All Rise over the past week at Symphony Center were Marsalis’ first complete performances of his work with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Commissioned and first performed on December 29, 1999, by the New York Philharmonic, with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, All Rise dares us to appreciate many types of music in one grand composition. Obviously, then, it is very ambitious. This music requires a mixed chorus, four vocal soloists, jazz orchestra, and an orchestra consisting of flutes and piccolos, oboes and an english horn, clarinets, bassoons, trumpets, trombones, a tuba, percussion, strings, and miscellany.
All Rise consists of twelve shortish compositions, a suite of diverse but connected pieces. Jazz, classical, Western folk, and contemporary music theater all hover around a core of blues. Marsalis writes that the work “is structured in the form of a twelve-bar blues . . . separated into three sections of four movements.” In this musical ode to harmony, Marsalis weaves through his “four movements” a sometimes startling array of music types—New Orleans brass band, church service, Italian aria, and on; musical instruments—a washboard, english horn, E-flat clarinet; trumpets and trombones; strings, and on once more. There seemed to be musical homages at pivotal junctures—Copland, Coltrane, Ellington, and Parker (in the nice trumpet solo with strings in “Expressbrown Local”). Was that Songheim in “Go Slow (But Don’t Stop)”? For all that, the work is quite coherent; and the movements from birth and self-discovery to maturity and joy are reflected smoothly throughout. But appealing to all taste?
Even though each piece suited its purpose in the narrative, “Save Us” had me fidgeting in the seat just a tad; and “Saturday Night Slow Drag” was too slow. Yet everything came together, without a major performing contribution by Marsalis, who was content to submerge his individuality in the orchestra. The final piece, “I Am,” was tremendous in bringing together the themes and musicians. Marsalis, as he sat amongst the orchestra with his horn at the ready, was having fun, a smile of enjoyment or approval at the ready, too. Wynton-style. It was infectious. The feeling in the audience of enchantment was palpable. The deal was sealed at the very end when Marsalis lifted his horn to lead his jazz orchestra in “When the Saints Come Marching In.” Suddenly conductor Steven Sloane rushed back on stage, lifted his baton, and led the Chicago Symphony in the Chicago Bears fight song.
Ah, hope! Ah, humanity.