Saturday, November 19, 2005

Best Jazz of 2005: #5

Wynton Marsalis
Live at the House of Tribes

Wynton Marsalis was famous before he turned 25. He won the first Pulitzer Prize for jazz, founded Jazz at Lincoln Center, and helped develop several influential programs that have introduced jazz to the mainstream of America. He's also a polarizing figure whose strong opinions have earned him a reputation as a tyrant and a demagogue.

Whatever else he may be, anyone with ears has to acknowledge: He's an outstanding musician. His technique and tone on the trumpet, both beyond reproach, are incidental: He's an intelligent, articulate, and even funny soloist. But he's often been compared to Miles Davis, and the resonance of that comparison lies in something else: Wynton is an inspiring and charismatic leader.

Trying to appreciate jazz by assessing soloists misses the forest for the trees. Miles Davis is remembered for his solos, for his tone, for his compositions — but most importantly, he was a bandleader. The same is true of Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus. The legendary contributors did more than simply make individual statements; they knew how to assemble a group and draw the best out of each player.

Wynton is a heavyweight bandleader. Marcus Roberts recorded a half-dozen albums on his own, and none of them were half as good as anything he played in Wynton's band. Wes Anderson's own quartet recording at the Vanguard isn't worth hearing; but on Wynton's front line, Anderson becomes a compelling soloist. Wynton creates a chemistry that elevates every constituent, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Several critics have said this is Wynton's best album since Live at Blues Alley. I don't find that particularly insightful, since he hasn't really recorded anything comparable during the interim; but I agree, this is among his best work. Live recordings are a tightrope: Mediocre performances sound bad, and bad performances sound worse; but if you catch the right band on the right night, you can capture magic.

Live at the House of Tribes: Green Chimneys; Just Friends; You Don't Know What Love Is; Donna Lee; What Is This Thing Called Love; 2nd Line.
Personnel: Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Wessell Anderson, alto saxophone; Eric Lewis, piano; Kengo Nakamura, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums; Robert Rucker, tambourine on 6; Orlando Q. Rodriguez, percussion on 1, 2, 5, 6.


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