Monday, March 16, 2009

Wynton Marsalis - artist bio

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As the title to Wynton Marsalis’s fifth Blue Note release indicates, He and She is about that eternally compelling and most elemental of subjects, the relationship between a man and a woman. The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, trumpeter and band leader, however, hasn’t merely crafted a love story, but a life story – a bittersweet rumination about the evanescence of life as well as the elusiveness of romance. Time is very much at the heart of He and She: the swift passage of time over the course of one’s life, the mood-altering shifts of time in the duration of a song. It’s an ambitious effort, combining spoken word and music, and Marsalis has given his quintet some formidable charts. The album is tempered with flashes of humor and plenty of swing. There’s ease and elegance and more than a little wisdom in these grooves.

He and She began with words, not music, though it was music that brought forth the words. Marsalis had been listening to Max Roach’s Jazz in ¾ Time, along with pieces by Duke Ellington, like “Lady Mac” from Such Sweet Thunder, work that explored waltz tempo in a jazz context. Roach’s classic album features “Valse Hot,” which, explains Marsalis is “a Sonny Rollins piece, a jazz waltz that I started to play when I was in high school.” That tune set off a spark: “I began to contemplate the shuffle rhythm, that the shuffle rhythm is the combination of a waltz feeling and a march feeling, and I thought it would be good for me to do an album of waltzes. I had written a couple before -- one was for a ballet by Twyla Tharp, inspired by the Matisse painting, The Dance. I was thinking about waltzes and how in Vienna today younger people still dance the waltz, a waltz season is still a part of their social calendar. From there, I began to consider the ritual of courtship. The waltz is a courtship dance and at one time it was considered to be risqué. Now, of course, it’s genteel. Then I started to think about men and women, our relationships.”

Marsalis was playing the jazz festival in Marciac, France, during the summer of ’06, when he embarked on writing the poem that provides the framework for He and She: “I would get up every morning and work on it, and I did that for maybe three weeks. I had written one song, but just the melody of the song, the one now called ‘Girls.’ I would get up every morning and try to figure out how to get my ideas together and organize them on the page. I went through a lot of different iterations to get the theme right and to say what I wanted to say about men and women.”

Marsalis had ended his last Blue Note studio album, From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, with a stunning spoken word piece, a concentrated burst of righteous anger that addressed with preacher-like fervor the divisive, post-Katrina state of the nation. On He and She, Marsalis’s voice is more prominent throughout, prefacing just about every track with his words. Marsalis notes, “On He and She, it’s a man talking, but the person who delivers the universal truth of the matter is a woman.”

The spoken word aspect of He and She comes naturally to Marsalis: “Reading poems aloud, singing blues in my house, I do all that. I love to read William Butler Yeats’s poems. I’ve been on the road for thirty years; I bring my book of poems and I read to the other cats at one o’clock or two o’clock in the morning, when everybody’s tired. We make up stories. We’re always talking, reading, I do this stuff all the time. Some people are not talkative, especially musicians. But in my case I like to talk, so the guys get to tell me to shut up a lot of the time. Since I was a boy, I liked talking. It’s easy to talk, but it’s hard to play. I never found talking that difficult.”

Yeats was a touchstone for Marsalis as he composed his own poem– especially Yeats’s “Under Ben Bulben” in which the aging Irish writer frankly addressed mortality. The music has as its inspirational starting point the three-quarter time of the waltz, but that’s also reflected in Marsalis’s words. He and She is ostensibly about a couple, but it’s really about three things: a man, a woman, and the relationship they create together (“1+ 1 = 3/You, me and you and me”). Images continually crop up in threes (“the moon, the desolate sky and the road”

or “a train, a banjo, and a chicken wing”). The arrangements echo the themes. For example, Marsalis explains, “’Sassy’ is in three and modulates up a half step. In music, the interesting thing is that the closest notes physically are the furthest apart harmonically – and that is like a man and a woman. The closest notes to a C are a C sharp or a B natural. But when you play them together they make the most dissonant sound. The spatial relationship belies the harmonic relationship. All these songs are put in unusual and difficult keys and they modulate. ‘Razor Rim’ is the most complex song in terms of its intention, and that has something to do
with the complexity of a woman. I didn’t want to write a typical, slow ballad and say this is a song about a woman, I wanted something that had some complexity and seriousness to it.”

In his poem, Marsalis imagines a country bluesman hovering over the proceedings, and, as with so much of Marsalis’s work, the blues plays a significant part on He and She: “The poem is also about the reconciliation of opposites. A man and a woman is the ultimate reconciliation of opposites on the human plane, but the reconciliation of opposites exists in all aspects of our lives. In terms of how that’s reflected in the music, the blues is the reconciliation of opposites. It’s in the major and minor mode and it has a shuffle rhythm, which, as I’ve said, is a march and a waltz. There are sweet songs that have a tragic undertone or tragic songs that have a happy, grooving undertone. Also, there’s the perspective of the blues, the call and response. You have the words you are singing, the commentary of the person answering you, and both of these things together. That’s also a three.”

The multilayered approach Marsalis has taken represents deep, sophisticated work – and the band gets an intense, ear-popping workout on an expansive track like “Razor Rim.” But Marsalis & Co. are also having some serious fun, especially in the sequence of songs representing romantic milestones in a relationship. Says Marsalis, “‘First Crush’ is a really flowery kind of improvisation, with lots of filigree in it. ‘First Kiss’ is kind of an awkward three; ‘The First Slow Dance’ is the most romantic of all these songs, it’s in D flat, and ‘First Time’” – to reflect the uneasy/excited circumstances of such a crucial encounter – “is very difficult to play. I wrote that to mess with [tenor saxophonist] Walter Blanding and give us something to practice on.” “First Time” is also distinguished by its Latin feel. “Our bassist, Carlos Henriquez, he brings another type of seriousness to our playing Afro-Hispanic music. We’re playing something specific, definite, not just some quasi-Latin groove.”

Before heading into the studio, Marsalis and his quintet traveled to the Iron Horse, in North Hampton, Mass. to perform this new material in front of an audience. Marsalis has been going up to the club for years to test-drive his work. The quintet subsequently cut the tracks live in the Legacy Recording Studios in New York City over a two-day period. The minimally edited result became He and She.

For Marsalis, seemingly disparate ideas about waltzes and women and words coalesce into a single vision. He and She draws its greatest power from telling a familiar story in such a compelling and richly entertaining manner, a unique variation on a theme that everyone, in some way, knows. One detects the sound of all our love stories in here. In other words, He and She is also Us. And that, as Mr. Marsalis would be pleased to note, also makes three.

Posting by:
Jazz Blues Florida

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