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November 2000

Wynton Marsalis Septet
The Marciac Suite
Columbia/Sony Classical

There's no middle ground in current circles regarding trumpeter, bandleader, occasional author and frequent media pundit Wynton Marsalis. There are legions who regard him as the savior of jazz, and many others who consider him a pompous, overrated fraud trucking in pseudo-militant rhetoric and hard-bop cliches. As someone whose view falls somewhere between these extremes, it's encouraging to note that The Marciac Suite, the eighth volume in the hyped "Swinging Into the 21st Century" series offers ample evidence of Marsalis' growth as a composer.
The 13-part suite nicely flows like a connected work with each song neatly segueing into the next chapter, rather than behaving like an unconnected batch of blowing sessions or string of flashy solos. Indeed, the solos are the disc's weak link, with such notable exceptions as Cyrus Chestnut's gospel-tinged contributions to "On the Big Top" and Eric Lewis' splendid phrasing throughout "Marciac Fun" and "Armagnac Dreams." Otherwise, the joy that comes from close listening to these compositions results from the ensemble's shimmering, precise sound. The vigorous pace they set on lengthy pieces like "Marciac Moon" or "Loose Duck" outweighs the sentimentality that nearly overwhelms the ballad "Mademoiselle D'Gascony," for example. In addition, when Marsalis takes the spotlight, his nimble lines and expressive licks are less measured and more striking. His solos have thankfully gotten less polite and bluesier. Marsalis' technique has not only improved, but he's shed the debt to mid-'50s Miles. You hear, for better or worse, a singular, if not always distinctive, voice in every note, line and statement.
The septet's other great member is trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, a superb improviser, whether using mutes or open horn. The other contributors are good participants, although alto saxophonist Wessell Anderson seems unable to bring his "A" game to recordings.
This is solid, occasionally delightful, ensemble material with more rhythmic energy and harmonic intensity than several of the more touted releases in Marsalis' series.

Originally published in November 2000
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