The Great Wynton Marsalis Debate — is he the savior of jazz or just a copycat — isn’t really about Wynton Marsalis, of course, which is why it’s interesting. It’s about the identity and the role of jazz in a hip-hop world. It’s about the music’s past and future — much more so than its present. It’s about clothes.
The Marsalis Debate has been so popular a media topic that it’s probably better known now than any of Marsalis’ music. Every know-it-all seems to have a stance, pro- or anti-Wynton.
Don’t feel left out, though, if you haven’t settled on your own Marsalis position. He has a major new double-CD release, Citi Movement, and it provides a one-step prep course in both sides of the Great Wynton Marsalis Debate.
If you want to be anti-Wynton, Citi Movement offers support for three persuasive arguments:
1. He’s a sampling machine in a suit. From its programmatic conception to its uncommon found harmonies, this original score for a 1991 ballet owes an unnerving debt to Duke Ellington. As controversial young saxist Greg Osby has groused, ”Jazz is not about wearing an Armani suit and regurgitating somebody else’s music as if you invented it.”
2. He’s pretentious. Like most of his recent work, ”Citi Movement” is an extended composition — 21 movements on two CDs. It’s an episodic (if striking) montage, meandering and seemingly padded. What would be wrong with writing perfect miniatures — songs a jazz band could play in a club — instead of giganto ”serious” works for concert halls?
3. He’s out of touch with his own time. Intended, in Marsalis’ own words, to ”depict various aspects of life in a modern city,” Citi Movement generally evokes a cheery urbanity oddly detached from the postmodern reality of stray-bullet slayings and social decay; with its tuneful depiction of taxi horns and busy cityfolk, this suite is as contemporary as art-deco El trains.
If you want to go pro-Wynton, though, Citi Movement also showcases some of Marsalis’ extraordinary attributes.
1. His work is just plain enjoyable. He has a genuine and precious compositional gift. Like his idols Armstrong and Ellington, as well as a less-acknowledged influence, Oliver Nelson, Marsalis can make music that is both gorgeously accessible and internally complex. Listen to Citi Movement’s ”Swingdown, Swingtown”: More than a homage to swing standards, it’s an instant standard itself.
2. He’s got a hell of a band. One more device Marsalis learned from Ellington is the ironic trick of conjuring his own compositional voice by freeing up great musicians to play as individuals. Citi Movement (particularly in its airier movements) is generous with solo space used to exquisite advantage — especially by saxist Todd Williams, who could well emerge as the great tenor voice of his generation.
3. He can really play. Hip-hop turks like Osby can philosophize away, but there’s not a trumpeter today (with the arguable exception of Jon Faddis) who can improvise with the depth, intelligence, and subtlety of Wynton Marsalis. Check out Citi Movement’s solo trumpet showcase, ”The Legend of Buddy Bolden.” It’s a masterpiece of taste.
Hmmm… That’s three points anti-Wynton, three points pro. So: Enough of the ”Great Wynton Marsalis Debate.” It’s time for jazz lovers to move on to something new, already — and maybe Marsalis will do the same thing. B+