In advance of From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, his suite of jazz and criticism out today, Wynton Marsalis has said he likes to put out a piece that has social involvement with American culture once every decade. When you can make that kind of statement as an artist and people take it seriously, it means you have long since arrived; in fact, youve made yourself at home and taken over, if not the whole house, at least one of its wings.
Which makes the Great Marsalis Debate, which has long boiled down to one question Is he good for jazz? tired and, frankly, of declining relevance at a time when two or three younger generations of players are moving in new directions that transcend the dynamic of the 1980s, when a Marsalis-led cohort of young lions came to rescue jazz from alleged ills such as fusion and the avant-garde.
About Marsalis himself, now 45, we have what Donald Rumsfeld might call known knowns. We know that he is a musical traditionalist and a bit of a political fuddy-duddy. We know that he is one of the great cultural entrepreneurs. And we know that he can, to use a technical phrase, play his behind off as a trumpeter and as a bandleader inciting his mates to do the same, on their solos and in blessed harmony.
All of this is at work on Plantation, a trademark Marsalis program with seven midlength compositions set in, yes, traditional styles where the main element is swing. Singer Jennifer Sanon shares front duties: At 21, she owns the freshness of voice to give the lyrics the urgency their themes demand. Marsaliss lyrics, however, dont quite match it.
There is didacticism here, as the titles depressing and redemptionless historical arc makes clear. A line from the title track, From the yassuh boss to the ghetto minstrelsy, shows this is also a smackdown of hip-hop and other foolishness. The ballad Love and Broken Hearts begins with a boilerplate rejection of rap misogyny and the thug life, then turns into a call for a revival of pallid romantic clichés (Its time for candy roses and silly names), its fogeyism pure and triumphant.
Marsalis himself goes all poetry slam on the last track, Where Yall At? Touted as the albums highlight, it disappoints. A prodigiously self-righteous call to account aimed at former (and current?) progressives, its more Juan Williams than Amiri Baraka in both theme and poesy.
In summary, the knowns remain known; Plantation breaks little critical ground. What remains is the generous, swinging music of a fine quintet. Their interplay, Marsaliss phrasings, and especially the transporting soprano saxophone of Walter Blanding put forth a joy that thankfully gets the better of the programs rueful agenda.
Wynton Marsalis is at Symphony Hall March 28.