Jazz CD Reviews

Wynton Marsalis Quintet – From the Plantation to the Penitentiary – Blue Note/EMI

This is outspoken jazz star Marsalis' most political statement yet

Published on April 19, 2007

Wynton Marsalis Quintet – From the Plantation to the Penitentiary – Blue Note/EMI
Wynton Marsalis Quintet – From the Plantation to the Penitentiary – Blue Note/EMI 946-3-73675-20, 58:24 ****:

(Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Walter Blanding, tenor & soprano sax; Dan Nimmer, piano; Carlos Henriquez, bass; Ali Jackson, Jr., drums; Jennifer Sanon, vocals)

Several jazz artists have recently devoted all or part of their latest albums to a spiritual, philosophical, social or political statement.  Often this involves tunes on subjects not usually treated – incidents from history or the current news (the New Orleans disaster is of course a frequent subject) – and the spoken word is often a part of the equation. Sometimes the spoken section comes from one of the performers and with others it is verite recordings of famous speakers such as Martin Luther King (Marsalis doesn’t use the latter.)  Marsalis himself delivers the spoken word on the last track of his new disc, “Where Y’all At?”

The trumpeter, jazz ambassaor and director of the Lincoln Center jazz programs has always been outspoken about the cracks in the facade of a happy and successful America. But this is his most political statement yet. He penned seven new tunes for his quintet which comment in no uncertain terms on troubling aspects of American culture and socio-political life, and racism is only one of them. Marsalis brought in a soulful 20-year-old singer, Jennifer Sanon, to deliver some of his pointed lyrics. Among his targets are the misogynistic lyrics of rap, America’s materialist obsession, the abandonment of idealistic causes by many former leftists and reformers, the lack of opportunity for people of color.

Some of the lines in Marsalis’ lyrics expand on the album’s overall title: “From the yassuh boss to the ghetto minstrelsy;” “From Zip Coon to the ghetto guy who’s going to threaten you;” “From the stock in slaves to the booming prison trade;” “From the coon shine to the unemployment line.”  These are powerful expressions of outrage couched in a hard-swinging jazz structure – not relaxing smooth jazz background by any means! Some of the lyrics sung by Ms. Sanon reminded me of the more pointed lyrics of the late Nina Simone, such as Mississippi Goddamn.  While this isn’t the sort of thing I’ll listen to frequently, I really appreciate the fact that Marsalis is laying out some of these ideas which I understand a few of the more thoughtful rap artists have touched on, but he’s doing it without rap, thank God.

 - John Henry




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