For nearly a decade trumpeter Wynton Marsalis has led a crusade to give jazz an aura of righteous respectability as America’s classical music. Playing in a style reminiscent of Miles Davis in the hard bop and cool jazz era, Marsalis—who is still only 27—has perfected a virtuoso technique while churning out scholarly fare, which Miles himself has aptly described as “museum music.” In The Majesty of the Blues, Marsalis ventures even further back in history to explore the New Orleans ensemble roots of jazz. But this time the music is both heady and gutsy, and Marsalis performs with an exultation that makes the album by far his best.
Leading a sextet on the title track, Marsalis creates a rich mélange of modernist harmonies and gutbucket blues. The braying sound of the horn section and Marsalis’s use of a plunger to create a bluesy growl recall both the grandeur and raunchy spirit of the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the 1920s. Meanwhile pianist Marcus Roberts keeps the music anchored in the present with his spare single-note lines. “Hickory Dickory Dock” is a childlike march with the exuberance of an early Louis Armstrong session and pregnant pauses that call to mind the quirky humor of Thelonious Monk.
For “The New Orleans Function,” a three-part, half-hour suite, the sextet is joined by 80-year-old banjoist Danny Barker and three other venerable Crescent City musicians. Structured like a traditional New Orleans jazz funeral, the piece opens with a slow, mournful dirge ominously entitled “The Death of Jazz” and ends with the jubilant march “Oh, But on the Third Day (Happy Feet Blues).” The music is hot and uninhibited, though Marsalis throws a bucket of ice water on the works by including a long-winded sermon about the lack of respect accorded jazz over the years. Penned by critic Stanley Crouch and delivered by the Chicago United Church of Christ minister Jeremiah Wright while Marsalis and his musicians back and fill, “Premature Autopsies” is so tedious that even true believers may find themselves nodding off.
The lecture is an example of how Marsalis, in his quest to convince the world at large of the nobility of jazz, sometimes charges into battle brandishing the dull-edged sword of pomposity. But musically, The Majesty of the Blues is proof that beneath Marsalis’s shining armor is a soulful spirit yearning to shout, cry and spread joy. (Columbia)