Thursday, March 01, 2007

Accent on the Offbeat

Accent on the Offbeat
Featuring Wynton Marsalis and Peter Martins

Wynton Marsalis has been criticized for bringing a classical oriented repertory conception to jazz as artistic director of Jazz @ Lincoln Center. His ambitious commissions from major cultural institutions have fueled that perception of elitism and most likely not a small degree of professional envy. Accent on the Offbeat chronicles the making of one such commission, Jazz (Six Syncopated Movements) a collaboration between Marsalis and chorographer Peter Martins of the New York City ballet.

Marsalis is heard early in the film explaining the original conception:

“When we first met he said he wanted the ballet to be about American life, and that’s very easy for jazz musicians because that’s what our music is about. And the jazz musicians have never had to try to escape being American by genuflecting to deeply towards Europe or any of that. Our music is constructed from the American vernacular musics.”

Marsalis and Martins are seen as vastly different personalities. Of the two, Marsalis clearly comes off better. At first, Martins cannot seem to decide if he can deal with Marsalis’ music, or if he even likes it. When he finally starts working with it, Martins comes off as a demanding high art type, with a sizeable ego. Later, seeing Martins schmooze with Henry Kissinger in the makeup room before he and Marsalis appear on Charlie Rose will probably set a lot of teeth on edge, across a wide political spectrum.

For his part, Marsalis appears to be the one trying to make it work, well served by his laid back jazzman’s persona. When copyist Ron Carbo asks about a change Martins wanted, Marsalis slyly replies: “I’ll just play the first phrase and do a lot of smiling just giving him the impression that I’m doing what he wants me to do.” Marsalis later puts things in perspective for Carbo saying: “like my daddy always told me, learn how to work a job.”

Marsalis had a tremendous ensemble for the project, including J@LC stalwarts Herlin Riley, Victor Goines, Wessell “Warmdaddy” Anderson, as well as Wycliffe Gordon and Todd Williams, who have since left the Marsalis/J@LC band. Accent focuses on the rehearsals, so not all of the music is heard in its final, polished form. However, enough of the movements are heard to give viewers a good taste. Accent concludes with performances of two movements, starting with “‘D’ in the Key of ‘F’ (Now the Blues),” a beautiful feature for Anderson’s alto and Williams’ tenor. The jaunty “Ragtime” is also seen with its final choreography (and heard over the menu screen), showcasing Goines on clarinet and Eric Reed on piano, before Marsalis and the brass come in for some rollicking ensemble passages.

Martins’ publicist might not be happy with Accent, but give the New York City ballet its proper due. The dancers are very talented, and sound quite enthusiastic in interview segments. Accent is a consistently interesting behind-the scenes look at a major cultural production. It also very well photographed, looking great for a so-called “vérité” film. The music is available in its entirety on Marsalis’ Jump Start and Jazz.

Marsalis is frequently caricatured as argumentative and opinionated. Accent presents a different, nuanced perspective on a very public artist.