By spearheading the neoconservative jazz movement of the early '80s, Wynton Marsalis proved himself the strongest inheritor of a bop and swing tradition that had been drowning in a sea of fusion for a decade. Marsalis' brash, dogmatic pronouncements that jazz -- jazz from before the '70s, anyway -- is "America's classical music" produced one of music's fiercest Oedipal struggles in recent memory. Convinced that none of Miles Davis' jazz-rock or jazz-funk experiments in his later career warranted any attention, Marsalis once went so far as to shoot hoops backstage while Davis was playing at a JVC festival.
Few can doubt Marsalis' technical virtuosity, his muted and richly modulated control over the trumpet. Nor can his facility as a leader be questioned: graduates of his early quartets and quintets include pianist Marcus Roberts and the drummer for brother Branford's Tonight Show band, Jeff "Tain" Watts. Ever since Marsalis expanded to a septet in 1991 by adding an alto sax and a trombone, his ensembles have taken on a more ambitious range of orchestration. His 1993 release, Citi Movement -- a collaborative ballet score with Garth Fagan -- even includes parts for the tuba to evoke a full spectrum of urban sounds and rhythms.
Marsalis uses his position as artistic director of "Jazz at Lincoln Center" as a platform to refine and disseminate the classical jazz canon, as well as to compose suites and other high-culture collages. Yet the troubling question about Marsalis and the neoconservative jazz movement persists: Is the movement progressive or reactionary? Is Marsalis truly adding anything new to the tradition, or just reinventing it for the concert hall? His style evokes a panoply of trumpeters: Clark Terry, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Freddy Hubbard and the prelapsarian Miles Davis of the '50s and '60s. But will a true Wynton Marsalis style emerge from this historical amalgamation? At the very least, Thursday's performance will show off the expansive directions he's been taking as a composer.
-- Bill Levine
The Wynton Marsalis Septet performs at 8 p.m. Thursday, April 7, at the Arena Theatre, 7324 Southwest Freeway, 988-1020. Sebastian Whittaker and the Creators open. $27.
* Material Issue at Goat's Head Soup, Thursday, April 7
* Urge Overkill at Numbers, Sunday, April 10
Folks on Philo
Driving around the country on a bus filled with four folk singers and their acoustic guitars isn't everyone's idea of a screaming good time, but get Bill Morrissey and Cheryl Wheeler hooked up on a conference call, and they make it sound like a damned slumber party.
Bill: "I never laughed so hard as during the first leg of this tour."
Cheryl: "That's because you'd never seen me naked before."
Bill: "It's a real adrenaline charge. Everybody's topping each other. It's not a competition, but you just get inspired."
Cheryl: "You get into this real group mentality, too. I had to go do this interview, and I was so sad that I had to leave the group."
Bill: "Like Ringo, when he got lost in A Hard Day's Night."
Cheryl: "You get real protective with each other."
Bill: "It's folk music."
Morrissey and Wheeler, two of the best-known artists on Massachusetts-based Philo Records, are on the road with Philo folk up-and-comers Kristina Olsen and Vance Gilbert as part of a package tour celebrating Philo's 20th year. The label that started out in a Vermont barn was taken under the wing of Rounder Records in 1984 and has only become more prestigious with recent signings. Morrissey's Night Train was released to wide acclaim last year, and Wheeler's new Drivin' Home CD is enjoying crossover success in folk and country markets. Olsen's Love, Kristina is newly out, and Gilbert, a black man in a largely white folk field, released Edgewise in January.
Morrissey, like Wheeler, makes semi-regular stops at the Mucky Duck, and
is perhaps the only one of the bunch with the songwriting depth to appeal beyond his genre, but from the sound of that conference call, the camaraderie of the road is opening up all sorts of fertile possibilities. It's not unlikely that to see these four now could be to see them at their best.
-- Brad Tyer
Philo Records' 20th Anniversary Tour: Bill Morrissey, Cheryl Wheeler, Kristina Olsen and Vance Gilbert play at 8 p.m. Monday, April 11 at Rockefeller's, 861-9365. Tickets cost $13 and $15.
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