Wynton Marsalis believes that the blues are the foundation of all music, or at least all good music. He has told us this in interviews and writings and shown it in his solo recordings and in his directorship of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Now Marsalis the composer has written a work to prove his thesis: All Rise, a two-CD, 100-minute opus for jazz orchestra, symphony orchestra and three choirs, cast in 12 massive movements. These movements trace "the progression of experiences that punctuate our lives" but also function as loose analogues to the 12 bars in a classic blues: the first four limn birth and self-discovery, the second four depict sin, repentance and redemption and the last four mature into a deeper, wider joy. So the blues is also life.
Marsalis puts forth an even more ambitious thesis in the liner notes to All Rise: "Today the world is so small, we don't need music to creep in closer to other people: We are close. The larger question of this moment is how will we translate all our differences into a collective creativity? That's where the blues comes in." On All Rise, the blues acts as a common ground for a musical cornucopia including, but not limited to, ancient Greek modes, the didgeridoo, Chinese parade bands, clave and samba, American fiddling, gospel, fugue and New Orleans brass bands. Wielded properly, Marsalis posits, the blues can unite us all-and with All Rise he aims to fulfill his own promise.
There are times in this work when one goal compromises another. Marsalis celebrates blues harmonies in all their forms but in many movements forgoes a home key; one misses the tidal pull of the tonic in movements like the opening "Jubal Step," a questing march that would benefit from clearer musical direction. At other times, Marsalis' insistence on blues as the only music we need compromises his expressive aims. "Save Us," the fifth movement, should fill us with the kind of terror that makes us cry to God, but the music doesn't get far enough from its regular dance rhythms to inspire fear. Later in that movement, the choir's plaintive chants of "Save us!" are supposed to be met with a firm denial by Marsalis' trumpet, but the bop riff that follows sounds more like a musical non sequitur than a harsh rejection.
And even if we grant Marsalis his epic ambition, it is hard not to feel at times that All Rise is too long and too self-consciously concerned with elevating nonclassical musics in a classical context. "Expressbrown Local" is fun but doesn't say anything new in its journey through the pantheon of train-evoking music, and "A Hundred and a Hundred, a Hundred and Twelve" would better express "the joy of play" its creator intended were it not as repetitive as its title. Meanwhile, "Wild Strumming of Fiddle" indulges in self-conscious imitation of the "chorus format of jazz and all-American popular song" and deploys an unconvincing fugato as if to show European art music's limitations by example.
In preemptive response to these charges, Marsalis titles one movement "The Halls of Erudition and Scholarship (Come Back Home)" and provides the following liner-note zinger: "The washboard is that folk element of the blues that cannot be corrupted. It represents the strength to resist over-refinement and willful descent into ever more elite forms of intellectual masturbation that often replace basic human engagement." I guess we're supposed to be glad we don't have any of that nonwashboard stuff here, but we do have a bunch of fresh ideas whose impact is diluted by the groove noodling surrounding them, ideas that might have gained power with closer attention to form.
But for each problematic passage, Marsalis provides a moment of unique beauty to balance against it: the choirs pealing hosannas with a string underpinning and an ecstatic flute urging them on during "Look Beyond," the gleeful seduction of the jazz orchestra ornamented by swirling strings on "Saturday Night Slow Drag," the roiling brass sermon with a stentorian tuba reverend and enthusiastic trumpet and trombone parishioners on "Cried, Shouted, Then Sung."
And whatever infelicities Marsalis' dedication to the blues may cause in specific moments, over the vast span of this work that dedication pays off. The dizzying array of sources and forms Marsalis uses are unified by the music he finds at life's center, "celebrating transcendence through acceptance of what is and proceeding from there in a straight line to the nearest groove." All Rise acquires a cumulative power as it spreads out, which Marsalis uses to lift up whoever hears it.
Marsalis' vision is aided immensely on this recording by the energetic, concentrated and committed performances of the Paul Smith Singers, the Northridge Singers, the Morgan State University Choir, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, integrated by intrepid conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.
With all ensembles working together, the finale, "I Am (Don't You Run From Me)," reaches to both heaven and earth with joyous gospel and a dizzying groove, recalling Ludwig van Beethoven's "kiss for all the world" in the choral finale of his Ninth Symphony. But Wynton Marsalis is calling to the world with the blues in All Rise, and while his voice falters at times, it eventually convinces you that there is a truth in what he's saying.