One of the most prolific artists of the last decade, Wynton Marsalis finished out the century in heroic fashion with an extraordinary flurry of releases on both Columbia Jazz and Sony Classical, including his expansive “Swinging Into The 21st Century” series. His first release of the new millennium is rainbow-colored icing on that voluminous cake-a seven-CD set documenting the trumpeter over a five-year span of performances with his septet at the Village Vanguard.
With its emphasis on sheer, unadulterated swinging and lots of group interaction, this body of work harks back to the vibrant energy and spirit of abandon apparent on Marsalis’ excellent quintet outings from the ’80s, notably 1985’s Black Codes From the Underground with brother Branford and 1986’s Live at Blues Alley. But while those earlier offerings in Wynton’s oeuvre reflect the towering influence of the mid-’60s Miles Davis quintet, these septet recordings from March 1990 through Dec. 1994 show a more seasoned bandleader honing a more personal expression. The level of Wynton’s playing is astounding throughout and the players eagerly follow his lead, spurred on by Riley’s marvelous drumming. On the earlier recordings the band is Wessell Anderson on alto sax, Todd Williams on tenor sax, Wycliffe Gordon on trombone, Reginald Veal on bass, Marcus Roberts on piano and Herlin Riley on drums. On the later recordings, Eric Reed replaces Roberts, Ben Wolfe replaces Veal and Victor Goines replaces Williams. The results from song to song, from disc to disc are often scintillating and Marsalis’ repartee with the audience as he introduces each tune and each member of the band is always genuine, warm, engaging and often funny.
The discs are divided up into days of the week, each with its own unique characteristic. Monday night, my personal favorite, kicks off with an exhilarating trumpet showcase in Ray Noble’s “Cherokee” followed by Wessell Anderson’s haunting “The Egyptian Blues,” featuring a magnificent moody ‘bone solo by Gordon. Wynton plays with requisite romance and lyricism, along with harmonic ingenuity, on a beautiful reading of Gershwin’s “Embraceable You.” The band hits its stride on a cover of “Black Codes,” featuring great ensemble playing and spirited stretching by Goines on clarinet. They dip into a moody bag on “Harriet Tubman,” featuring more brilliant trumpet work and notable solo contributions from Reed and Goines. The lush voicings of the four horns put an alluring sheen on “Monk’s Mood” and their playful counterpoint adds a giddy quality to Williams’ infectious cooker “The Cat in the Hat Is Back.”
Wynton and company play it looser and more unpredictable on Tuesday night. Highlights include a sizzling “Down Home With Homey,” featuring a superb extended bass intro by Veal and a wailing solo from Anderson, and a New Orleans-flavored blues, “Jig’s Jig,” described by the composer as “a tonal description of what we see when looking into a kaleidoscope.” Wynton again reveals his highly expressive balladic powers on Monk’s “Reflections” while tenorman Todd Williams is showcased exclusively on a luscious treatment of Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood.” The band settles into a relaxed swinging groove on “Knozz-moe-king” from Live at Blues Alley. This eclectic set even features a Mardi Gras Indians-type number in “Uptown Ruler,” replete with jack-ee-mo-fina-hey two-way-pocky-way chants and tambourine beats.
Wednesday is standards night, featuring a particularly gorgeous, introspective reading of “Stardust” and a bossafied take on “I’ll Remember April.” There’s also a playful, up tempo chopsbuster, “Buggy Ride,” which Wynton wrote for Charlie Brown and Snoopy, and a charming “In the Court of King Oliver,” featuring some wonderfully vocal plunger work by trombonist Gordon and some playful muted growling by Wynton himself. The tightness of the ensemble on Monk’s demanding line from “Four in One” is breathtaking while they play it strictly loosely goosey on Count Basie’s “Way Back Blues.” Add in inspired renditions of Ellington’s giddy “Rubber Bottom” and his rousing “Play the Blues and Go” along with Billy Strayhorn’s rare gem “Midnight in Paris” and you have another full evening of solid, swinging, celebratory music.
Thursday is another fun-filled, loose affair, including a festive “Happy Birthday” for someone in the audience as well as ebullient covers of Monk’s “Misterioso” and “Evidence.”
The centerpiece of Friday night is Marsalis’ mini-suite “The Majesty of the Blues.” Clarinetist Dr. Michael White guests on the somber traditional hymn “Free as a Bird to the Mountain”, then Herlin Riley lays down his patented New Orleans groove underneath the aptly named “Happy Feet Blues.” Two more takes on Monk-“Thelonious” and “Bright Mississippi”-along with another take on “Stardust” and Wynton’s highly personal paean to a jazz legend, the masterful “Buddy Bolden”/”Swing Down Swing Town,” puts this disc in strong contention for second place on my list.
Saturday night focuses on long-form pieces, including a 40-minute rendition of his “Citi Movement.” And Sunday, appropriately, is immersed in spiritual music, including an epic, hour-long version of Marsalis’ stirring opus “In the Sweet Embrace of Life” along with an upbeat, Dixieland-flavored “Local Announcements” and a somber “Altar Call.” Perhaps the biggest revelation of this meaty package is the modest price: just $35 for the entire box of this substantial, deep, heartfelt, swinging music. That’s $8 a disc, roughly half of what CDs go for these days. It’s a brilliant, benevolent scheme, and part of Marsalis’ ongoing mission of bringing jazz to as many ears as possible.