Monday, April 06, 2009

Wynton on He and She

He and She
By Wynton Marsalis
Blue Note Records

Wynton Marsalis might be a controversial figure on the jazz scene, but in live performances, he sure can turn on the charisma. Yet, for all the excellent recordings in his discography, that winning stage personality has never truly been captured, but at least his latest release gives listeners a taste of it. Featuring his spoken word odes to young love, Marsalis’s He and She is a real charmer.

When listening to the so-called “poems,” Marsalis’s spoken word interludes that preface each tune on He and She, it is clear why the trumpeter has been such a successful fundraiser for Jazz at Lincoln Center. The man has a gift for sweet talk. Unlike much jazz and spoken word fusions, his poems and his admittedly syrupy delivery have an eccentric appeal that, I would fearlessly argue, hold up surprisingly well to repeatedly listening (and if you disagree, you can simply program out those tracks).

As for his music, it has an undeniable charm, starting with “School Boy,” which digs deep into the New Orleans tradition, even featuring some old school ragging from pianist Dan Nimmer and Walter Blanding communing with his inner Sidney Bechet on soprano sax. While true to his Neo-classicism, eschewing experimentation for its own sake, Marsalis’s compositions on He and She still sound consistently fresh and dynamic, like the aptly titled “Sassy.” The playful piece, again featuring Blandings on soprano, nicely brings out Marsalis’s musical wit.

Perhaps the set’s most intriguing piece though, especially given Marsalis’s well-known aesthetic philosophy, is the so-called free composition “Fear.” While “free” might be overstating things, it is certainly moody and relatively abstract, effectively driven by Carlos Henriquez’s bass, before resolving into a safely melodic coda.

The centerpiece of He and She is a suite of firsts: “First Crush,” “First Kiss,” “First Slow Dance,” and “First Time.” While essentially a brief prelude, “Crush” still demonstrates both Marsalis’s brilliant technique, as well as his lyrical sensitivity on romantic ballads. It segues seamlessly into the dreamy “Slow Dance,” featuring an elegantly fluid solo from Nimmer. “Kiss,” another waltz, is more conversational, with Marsalis making his case through his mute. The pay-off comes on “First Time” a passionate Danzón that builds to an exuberant climax (so to speak), making it the standout track of the disk.

The music of He and She concludes where it all began—with the blues. “A Train, A Banjo, a Chicken Wing” provides a vehicle for some lusty tenor work from Blandings and some tasty gut-bucket plunger work from the composer, before he recaps all the spoken word bits in one complete “poem.”

He and She is probably Marsalis’s strongest release since he has signed with Blue Note. Love or hate his spoken word recitations, he is playing remains as strong as ever. His band also performs with verve and his originals sparkle in their inspired hands. As a result, He and She is quite a rewarding release that should particularly appeal to his considerable fans, who are likely to be more receptive to his vocal interjections, if only to hear an echo of that great stage presence.