Jazz CD Reviews

Wynton Marsalis Box Set – Swinging Into the 21st – Sony Legacy (11 CDs)

This is a fine collection of Marsalis’ “middle period” and a great demonstration of his high standards and extremely varied musical settings.

Published on November 23, 2011

Wynton Marsalis Box Set – Swinging Into the 21st – 10 albums: A Fiddler’s Tale; Standard Time Vol. 4: Marsalis Plays Monk; At the Octoroon Balls, Big Train; Sweet Releaase & Ghost Story; Standard Time, Vol. 6 : Mr. Jelly Lord; Reeltime; Selections from the Village Vanguard Box; The Marciac Suite; All Rise (2 CD set) – with Wynton Marsalis Septet, Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, Orion String Quartet, many others – Sony Legacy 8869/944282 (11 CDs) *****:

Wynton Marslis, now 50 and perhaps the most famous jazz musician alive today, hand-picked the ten albums in this boxed set, which display his extraordinary musical range. Five of the discs all come from a single year, 1999, when he was really busy turning out albums, and they were all surprisingly good. The note booklet has at least a page on each album, with all the credits included. The staggering amount of good music here, of every description, and from a rather brief amount of time, seems to have been no huge exertion for Marsalis, who is amazingly prolific.

I think my favorite of the ten is Big Train – recorded in one day and written by Marsalis for one of his young sons who is nuts about trains. Its dozen tracks partake of some of the great train-influenced tunes of Ellington and others, but go beyond them to a delightful concept-oriented collection of instrumentals by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.  Many of its movements are named for various cars on the train, from the Engine and the Dining Car to the Caboose. The shouts of the “conductor” add to the feeling of a real train trip.

Fiddler’s Tale is Marsalis’ modern chamber music homage to Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale. It even has a narrator, as Stravinsky’s original did, with words by jazz writer Stanley Crouch. Marsalis’ trumpet is the lead instrument, taking the part of the violin in Stravinsky’s work, and the rest of the ensemble consists of clarinet, bassoon, trombone, bass, violin and percussion. The all-Monk and all-Jelly Roll Morton albums are wonderful homages, with quite different arrangements than we have heard on other modern versions of the music of both. Reeltime, as its title might indicate, is a collection of 21 different cues from film music which Marsalis has scored.  The instrumentation is not all for jazz ensemble by any means: there is Mark O’Connor on violin and mandolin, some vocalists, Marcus Roberts on solo piano, plus some big band tracks.

One of the favored venues for performances by the Marsalis Septet was NYV’s Village Vanguard, and one of the CDs captures live performances from there. There are two jazz ballets by Marsalis: Sweet Release and Ghost Story, and the set comes to a close with a massive work that requires double-disc release: All Rise. It uses three different choirs of up to 100 voices, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the LA Philharmonic conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, plus Marsalis’ trumpet.  The music goes beyond the usual styles or genres in a synthesis of the past and present of music while carrying out a theme of striving to rise above the worst adversities. Some of the section titles give a feeling for the work: “Go Slow But Don’t Stop; Save Us; Look Beyond, Saturday Night Slow Drag.”

This is a fine collection of Marsalis’ “middle period” and a great demonstration of his high standards and extremely varied musical settings.

—John Henry




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