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01/31/14

Wynton Marsalis
The Spiritual Side of Wynton Marsalis
Columbia/Sony Classical/Legacy

Like so many other jazz musicians, Wynton Marsalis spent his formative years steeped in church music, but only sporadically has he incorporated gospel or other religion-based elements into his own work willfully. Instead, he has on occasion drawn upon his core beliefs in positivity, singularity and consciousness-raising and integrated his convictions when apropos. This new single-disc compilation, timed as a companion piece to October’s “Abyssinian: A Gospel Celebration Tour,” featuring Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra plus a massive choir, aims to collate those scattered moments. It gathers material from seven Marsalis albums released between 1991 and 2002, and while it wisely doesn’t attempt to draw lines between the 15 pieces stylistically, it succeeds in its goal of exposing the role of the sacred within Marsalis’ primarily secular music.

It opens with “I Hear a Knockin’,” an a cappella vocal by gospel singer Shirley Caesar from Reeltime, a 1999 Marsalis release. Less than a minute long, and devoid of Marsalis’ involvement, it segues into “All Rise XII: I Am (Don’t You Run From Me),” a swinging, hand-clapping gospel number from 2001 featuring vocal choirs, orchestras and, atop it all, the leader’s joyous trumpet. The pacing of the album continues along this route, slow/minimal/solemn to jumping/jubilant/extravagant and back again, the objective, according to son Simeon Marsalis’ excellent liner notes, to channel the ambience of a New Orleans funeral procession.

A full six tracks are borrowed from Marsalis’ most traditionally religious album, 1994’s In This House, On This Morning, and one, “Flee as a Bird to the Mountain,” is from the superb 1999 Live at the Village Vanguard, featuring Marsalis’ septets of the time. The only unreleased track is a ’93 recording, Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” featuring gospel singer Marion Williams and pianist Eric Reed. As on the program opener, there is no Wynton Marsalis to be found, which perhaps says just as much about the integrity behind his artistic choices as one of his flawlessly framed solos.

Originally published in January/February 2014
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