If one jazz musician best reflected the glib side of the 1980s, with that decade’s talk of family values, cultural refinement, and rugged individualism, it surely was Wynton Marsalis. I don’t mean that to be entirely disparaging. The erstwhile prodigy will turn 30 this year, and his impact on the jazz scene has been enormous and largely benevolent. As an eloquent spokesman for traditional jazz values, he has increased the music’s audience. He has played an important role in the jazz repertory movement with his annual concert series of classic jazz arrangements at New York’s Lincoln Center and has sponsored many younger players. Still, his dismissal of the avant-garde and contemporary pop, and his obsession with conservatively chic presentation, may have robbed jazz of some of its wanton pleasures. Even some of his own recent work smacks of premature stodginess.
You can hear what I mean in parts of his newest album, Standard Time Vol. 2: Intimacy Calling and on most of its predecessor, released nearly a year ago and perversely titled Standard Time Vol. 3: The Resolution of Romance. (Standard Time Vol. 1 came out in 1987.) Vol. 3 was arguably his most disappointing album to date; far from resolving romance, it reduced several overly familiar songs to lugubrious statements of their unadorned melodies, played with a self-consciously exquisite sound, but with little imagination and less vitality. Only on ”I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” did the Marsalis brilliance burst through. For the rest, he seemed more concerned with timbre and playing the music in unusual keys than with putting his own imprint on the material. (Roy Eldridge injected more personality into half a chorus of ”Skylark” than Marsalis produced in three exceedingly drawn-out minutes on the same tune.) Vol. 2 represents a partial return to his normal form.
One obvious difference between the albums is the amount of space that Marsalis gives himself to investigate the standards. Vol. 3 settles for 12 cuts in 70 minutes; Vol. 2 settles for 12 in 20 minutes.
Both albums manage equally well to dispose of the ghostly influence of Miles Davis, with whom Marsalis was endlessly compared in the ’80s, not without justification. By now he has established an approach of his own — one that transmutes the styles of other exemplary trumpeters. There are moments in the Standard Time series when he suggests a nattier Kenny Dorham or a drier Bobby Hackett. Only on the new album’s ”I Remember April” do we hear a smattering of Miles’ attack. On ”Sleepytime Down South,” however, we can hear more than a smattering of how well Marsalis has listened to the veteran Clark Terry.
Five performances on Vol. 2 are stunningly good — on these he transcends comparison. The topper is Jerome Kern’s ”Yesterdays,” in which Marsalis unveils an immensely moving vocalized sound and improvises a dark, mournful paraphrase of the original melody. Another standout is ”Embraceable You,” in which he suggests Charlie Parker’s incomparable 1947 version by improvising variations from the start and building (via a few evocatively smeared high notes reminiscent of Harry James) to breathlessly intricate double-time figures. ”What Is This Thing Called Love?” and ”Lover” are breakneck romps with canny melodic ideas, high-note flourishes, and virtuoso excursions that combine permutations of riffs with knotty rhythmic displacements. ”Bourbon Street Parade” is a neat closer, vibrantly played over a New Orleans beat without piano.
The remaining selections aren’t nearly as good, though they have moments. ”End of a Love Affair” is a reverent theme-only statement as dry as most of the stuff on Vol. 3. An original, ”Indelible and Nocturnal” (Marsalis has a penchant for pretentious titles), may be nocturnal but certainly isn’t indelible. Adding a tenor and an alto saxophone, Marsalis has written a handsome arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s ”Crepescule With Nellie,” though not handsome enough to justify his once again recording only the theme without solos. He fails to put much of a mark on ”I Remember April,” ”You Don’t Know What Love Is,” and ”Sleepytime,” and he doesn’t play at all on ”East of the Sun,” a feature for Marcus Roberts’ Red Garland-inspired 1950s cocktail piano. Indeed, Roberts, who seems to me greatly overrated, doesn’t add much at all. His solos have the virtue of economy, but little passion or wit.
When you listen to Marsalis at his best, it’s impossible not to recall the exhilaration of hearing him 10 years ago, when his talent portended unlimited possibilities. But as you hear him laboriously preen his way through ballads that have been done far better in the past, it’s difficult not to wonder: Have the pressures of being a bandleader since practically the beginning of his career (he sounded a lot wilder during his debut year with Art Blakey), as well as his prolific recording schedule (three albums in the past year), aged him some? On Standard Time Vol. 2, you hear both Wynton the Grand and Wynton the Fatigued. B+