RAPPING: “I’m not just someone who saw some Negroes once.”
From the beat of the first hand-slapped tambourine, you know who you’re listening to. For all the cries back in the bad old days about how conservative his music was, what was true then is true now: no one sounds like Wynton Marsalis, and he doesn’t sound like anyone else. Looking back at his Live at Blues Alley (Columbia, 1988), critic Ben Ratliff pointed out that the music was accessible rather than obscure — “Yet if a traveling musician from an earlier generation of jazz were plopped down in the middle of one of these burnout tunes and asked to hang in there, he’d be at sea.”
The music was “hard,” as Wynton has never tired of telling us. And it still is. The new From the Plantation to the Penitentiary (Blue Note), which begins with that hand-slapped tambourine, is not the kind of music that an adept musician of any generation can just be plopped down in the middle of. The tempos are generally more relaxed than in those old “burnout” pieces, but the rhythms are all over the place, combined in fresh ways (“6/4 groove, 6/8 naningo, 6/4 swing,” “alternating 2-beat country groove, soca, cumbia, swing,” and so on). Yet despite the variety, the music here is as unambiguous as its politics. And politics — American culture — is what it’s about. (The Celebrity Series brings Wynton and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to Symphony Hall this Wednesday, but they won’t be playing material from the new album.)
Marsalis put the word out ahead of time that this album would have “social involvement with American culture” and that his targets would include the misogyny and “trashy ‘youth culture’ ” of hip-hop, self-styled ’60s radicals who’ve betrayed their idealism, materialistic greed. The way this plays out in the music is schematic. When Jennifer Sanon sings the opening line, “From the plantation/To the penitentia-reee,” she extends that last syllable and goes so flat as to take it into another key. You might think it was a mistake if it weren’t for the precision with which she hits that same off-pitch rhyme every time it returns — “From the yassuh boss/To the ghetto minstrel-seee.”
See, that off-note is Wynton’s way of telling us that something is amiss. Most of the time, when a technically accomplished musician goes “out,” it’s collateral damage in the means to an expressive end — the “mistake” that the improvising musician tends to leave in because it helped him get where he’s going. But we’re in Wyntonland, where even the mistakes are calculated. Marsalis gets a similar effect on the second chorus of the ballad-tempo “Find Me,” when Sanon sings “I see starving people screaming” and everyone in the band goes “out” at once — arbitrary runs and plonked notes, a parody of free jazz because, as everyone knows, hell is free jazz, where all is arbitrary.
Except it isn’t. “Free jazz,” the avant-garde, however you define it, is not about being arbitrary. If anything, it’s about intent — as much intention and deliberation as any of Wynton’s old burnouts.