Marsalis is acutely aware of the past; he reveres the innovators who have defined jazz.

Columbia CDCBS 26686

Wynton Marsalis (trumpet); Branford Marsalis (saxophones); Kenny Kirkland (piano); Charnett Moffett (bass); Jeff” Tain” Watts (drums); Ron Carter (bass on ‘Aural Oasis’);

Black Codes / For Wee Folks / Delfeayo’s Dilemma / Phryzzinian Man / Aural Oasis / Chambers Of Tain / Blues

Recorded January 1985

It was a pivotal moment. Art Blakey with a young band appeared at the Roundhouse in Camden in 1981. There was little warning, no publicity and the audience was visibly amazed by the trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis. His youth, virtuosity, assurance and his

technical ability prompted many to believe that they were present at the debut of an important, new jazz voice. Both on the faster pieces and in his solo slot Marsalis dazzled.

Since then, Marsalis has had a phenomenal career both in jazz and in classical music. He became the first person to win a Grammy in both the jazz and classical categories, aged only 22. Despite this, Marsalis has become a controversial figure in jazz. Rather than welcoming this extraordinary talent there has been a welter of criticism. Marsalis believes that jazz music is an extension and improvement of classical music.

‘Black Codes’ was recorded over four days in 1985. It is a comment on the Black Codes, the post-Civil War laws that in Louisiana and other Southern states were used to keep black citizens in a state of oppression.

A great many 20th-century civil rights cases were based on the Black Codes, on laws that tried to politically suppress the achievements of the Civil War. The album cover has a photograph of a black child looking at a blackboard where the “Three-Fifths Compromise” — the constitutional measure that describes enslaved Black people as three-fifths of a human being — was written out in chalk as the lesson of the day. Part of it is erased. Replacing it are words also written in chalk: “Black Codes (From the Underground).”

Marsalis, although critical of the Miles Davis’ albums post 1970’s, was impressed by the Davis quintet albums of the 60s and it is obvious that the music on Black Codes has a debt to the Davis albums. The first track ‘Black Codes’ has some astute playing from both Branford and Wynton. Wynton’s solo has a structure, style and tension which is maintained at length. Branford’s solo lacks these qualities and is lacking in structural coherence and tension. Kenny Kirkland and Charnett Moffett provide an assertive backing. Kirkland begins and maintains a powerful rhythm. Watts, heavily influenced by Tony Williams and Elvin Jones, is sometimes over dominant.

‘For Wee Folks’ has Branford on soprano before the gentle rhythm shifts a gear to become more aggressive. The two horns work well together. Branford is on tenor for ‘Delfeayo’s Dilemma’ and it is noticeable that there is a debt to Wayne Shorter. Wynton is much clearer in his line than Davis was in the sixties. He is closer to Clifford Brown. There is a refreshing directness in his playing.

‘Phryzzinian Man’ has a tight theme with bass from the piano. Wynton emerges with a clear bell-like tone reminiscent again of Clifford Brown, long notes daring swoops and smears. Branford has a different technique, not straight ahead, more broken phrases, quizzical, questioning. Wynton explained the structure: ’Phryzzinian Man is based on call and response. The horns play, then the rhythm section answers and vice versa. Each time

the interlude happens, I tried to vary it to keep it from getting stale. I like that Kenny solos second on the recording. I’ve never understood while the rhythm section always seems to solo after the horns. You’ll notice that after Interlude #2, Branford comes in on the IV chord rather than at the top, just to give the song some diversity. I was consciously trying to get away from the traditional Melody, Solos, Melody sequence.’

Muted, Wynton has a lonely sound in ‘Aural Oasis’. Branford solos with a lyrical thoughtful mood. The contemplative piano solo is Kenny Kirkland’s best. Ron Carter accompanies showing taste and sensitivity. The long line echoes the kind of music that was popular in the 70’s—Chick Corea’s music, Weather Report—Mingus, Trane and Miles Davis. This song is similar to a composition by Ellis Marsalis called ‘Nostalgic Impressions’.

Kenny Kirkland wrote ‘Chambers of Tain’ for Jeff Watts. Watts received praise from Max Roach and it is easy to see the reason. Watts has the tightness and edgy fee that Roach aimed for. The open horn from Wynton is beautiful even at speed as he spins a long solo with occasional repetitive motifs as he unravels his ideas. Branford does not have the lucidity of his brother. The final solo from Watts is urgently driven and crisp.

‘Blues’, the last track, is nearly six minutes of trumpet and bass. It is a lyrical solo exhibiting musical thoughts with long held notes that are in every sense of the word breathtaking. This is Wynton closer to Armstrong and the New Orleans roots. Charnett Moffatt provides the sympathetic bass line. In some ways this is the essence of Marsalis. He is acutely aware of the past; he reveres the innovators who have defined jazz. Often in his playing, you can hear Louis, Nance, Cootie, Roy, Freddie, Clifford.

Wynton Marsalis has confronted head-on the dilemma of jazz musicians: how can jazz change and what is owed to the past? His eminence in New York, his place at the Lincoln Centre and his conservative attitude has alienated some musicians. Nevertheless, he deserves to be listened to and the challenges confronted.