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Wynton Marsalis At The Rex, 2008

My lovely wife sent me the link for this blast of beauty from October 2008 at the Rex in Toronto. Shoddy camerawork, but the playing’s awesome!

Enjoy!

 

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Wynton Marsalis – Christmas Jazz Jam

It’s time I started getting around to writing about the stuff I got for Christmas, don’tcha think? Sure ya do.

I love Wynton Marsalis’ trumpet playing. Have for ages. It’s the tone. His breadth of knowledge and sense of fun (while completely precise) that he brings to what he does. He is always surrounded by superlative players. And it seems like he farts albums. His bands are such a shit-hot units, I swear it seems they could crack out an album in an afternoon’s studio session. How many records has he made, now? 100? 150? 200? Many, many, many, and I seem to really like artists that are prolific as hell (I’m looking at you too, Mr. Pollard). Anyway.

So you should also know that, generally, I hate Christmas music. I’m not a grinch. I just don’t get all sappy at Christmas-time. I am not warmed by insipid carols. At all. Do NOT come to my door, singing. You will not likely get cocoa and a huge thanks. With this in mind, know that I don’t tend to buy Christmas music. Quelle surprise!

Rewind to about three years ago when, for some unknown reason, I was in the Evil Empire (you’ll call it Wal-Mart). Amnesia, probably didn’t know where I was. And I saw this Wynton record for about $8. And I was initially excited. Cheap Wynton CD! But then reason kicked in, and I thought about how much I was likely to actually play the damn thing (given how I feel about Christmas music). So, I left it. No big deal.

Each year, during a fit of Alzheimer-like wandering, I would find myself in that mall-wart and I would visit the CD. It was always there. But I never bought it. It just pleased me to see Wynton. And then this year, I thought to hell with this, I should just buy the damn thing. I mean, I’ve been passively stalking it for three years, so pony up, big boy. If nothing else, it’d add another soldier to my Wynton collection. So I dug through the bin of Christmas CDs. And it wasn’t there. Back at home, I checked the internets… out of print. Oh, Amazon had a copy. $53. Discogs didn’t even list it. Well, shit.

My lovely wife heard the tale (she hears many of my ramblings about music, and is very very very patient with me). I figured that was the end of it, maybe I could check next year and there would have been a box in storage they’d missed and I’d get a copy. Funny how I went from not caring, when it was available, to wanting it when it wasn’t. I’m only human.

As you’ve guessed, my lovely wife found a copy for me as a Christmas gift. She found it on eBay, which is a place I am not allowed to go because I would bankrupt us by buying hard-to-get Guided By Voices vinyls. Anyway, I was thrilled. It felt like a fitting ending. And the CD has a story: apparently, it was originally it was a release for Target, in the US, and came packaged with Bing Crosby’s White Christmas as a 2-fer. Yep, I got the Bing CD too, as these were unopened pristine copies.

And the Wynton CD itself? It’s pretty damn hot. Picture yourself in New Orleans, in some small and sweaty club. On a stage with no extra room to move, Wynton and his merry band of insanely-talented players are ripping through Christmas standards, Dixieland-style. And there you go. There are some sweet vocals from Roberta Gumbel and Don Vappie (who also played guitar and banjo), but by and large this is an instrumental album. People this talented will scare everyone who pretends to be a player.

It’s still Christmas music. I can’t pretend it’s not. But holy hell, the playing here is brilliant. Of course it is. It’s Wynton.

My huge thanks to my lovely wife for making this happen. She knows me so well and she’s so very thoughtful. And patient. Did I mention that?

Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton – Play The Blues, Live From Jazz At Lincoln Center

Two giants on the stage, surrounded by an ace band, ripping through an impeccable set list of old blues songs. One CD, and a DVD, too. What a set, what a night! The enduring impression I have of hearing this is of a stage-full of incredibly gifted players, lost in the joy of both making music and paying homage to the history that gave it to us. Let’s hope that this is only the first of many collaborations between these two superlative players and their friends.

To say I loved this would be unparalleled understatement.

Ice Cream is a great old jump boogie in that old party style, bringing turn of the last century ‘jass’ one hundred years into the future. Glorious. Lots of solo turns, and each is phenomenal. If you’re not tapping your foot along to this, stop listening now.

Move without much pause into the sweetly loping Forty-Four. Clapton’s vocals growl, just like they did on his From The Cradle record. The guitar is much more to the fore in this track, and that relentless piano echoing the snare drum is hypnotic. We get more huge solos, all tastefully dirty and suiting the song. The liner notes list this as written by Chester Burnett, but you might know him by the name Howlin’ Wolf. Or, if you’re an afficianado, maybe you know Roosevelt Sykes’ earlier take on it. So hot.

In the Notes On Play The Blues inside the booklet, Wynton describes WC Handy’s Joe Turner’s Blues here as a ‘southern slow drag,’ and that it sure is. It’s so sweet, playing at half speed is just as powerful as the finger-twisting speed of other tracks here. This is lazy afternoon music, hell, maybe even funeral march music.

Louis Armstrong’s The Last Time opens with a sweet clarinet, which makes way for a really fat-toned trumpet by Wynton. That must’ve been Clapton saying “yeah!” during the intro. The clarinet comes back and you can’t help but smile. The band members are surely enjoying it. The vocals ride in on a wave of piano, followed by just great instrumentation all around. These cats are just revelling in it. Hot damn.

W.C. Handy’s Careless Love is another slow stomper, though the horns in the background are lightly kinetic. A sweet mix of slow and agile. Clapton’s vocals mix perfectly with his bluesy guitar line, and holy hell what a solo! And that trumpet… I need to play this CD over and over and just let that horn seep into my blood. I do believe I will.

Head straight into the Kidman Blues, which double-times it straight into a dance jive that’ll make you move no matter what you’re doing otherwise. Fun! Stand-out here is the piano through the whole tune. There’s a wall of horns, they’re all yammering at once, but no one is stepping in the way of any other. Another huge guitar solo… all of it stunning.

A big, messy teaser intro leads into a dirge-like Layla. It takes the crowd a while to pick up the hint of what it is, but when they do, they love it. It’s interesting how well this song fits in with the surrounding standards and classic old blues. Clapton has played with variations of this track many times through the years. At this version’s pace, the tune becomes even more plaintive, even more pained. Clapton’s guitar solo is incendiary, and when Wynton takes over to solo, the tune starts to swing before sliding back. So cool.

Joliet Bound is pure old blues jamming from Memphis Minnie, with a propulsive beat like an old steam engine at full throttle. What a harrowing tale, and Chris Crenshaw’s vocals are great. “I’ve been drinking white lightning, it’s gone to my head” indeed. A great muted horn solo. I swear.

Then we’re swept to a New orleans side street as a funeral procession glides past, the band marching sweetly through Just A Closer Walk With Thee. Just let it wash over you. You’ll find yourself wishing it would never end. Taj Mahal’s vocals are also really great. Then, around the six and a half minute-mark, one of those great drum breakouts appears from the sadness, enough to make you shake your moneymaker and not care who was watching. From there the track takes off into a gleeful blast of happy jazz.

Ostensibly the concert ends here, though Mahal comes back for a jaunt through Corrine, Corinna, which is just a great party track. He even brings a banjo. Yeah, man. Yeah. You can surely tell the band can’t get enough, they’d play all night. This last volley is just gravy. Delicious, jazzy gravy.

Please. Buy This. Even if it’s the only jazz CD you’d own. Damn. This might be my album of the year.

***

And then I did it all over again, this time watching the DVD of the same performance. But the DVD is so much more than that!

Sure, we get all of the performances with mostly good camera-work (some of it does jump around on zoom disorientingly fast), and a bit more of the stage banter that was edited from the CD. That’s the part of shows like this that I love. The little stories between songs, the stuff of life that the final product wouldn’t otherwise give you.

It’s fun to watch these musicians ply their trade, but I still have to say that I’m glad I played the CD first. Sort of like when you’re glad you read the book before seeing the movie. It’s better when your mind takes in the music first, before the distractions of watching them move and play in the film takes over. The latter is much more passive. However you look at it, though, this stuff is BRILLIANT.

And as if that isn’t enough, there are patches of documentary-style footage as well, backstage shots of band members, with voices-overs from Wynton. One of the most poignant things he says, (I think it was during the end credits), is that to have all of these amazing musicians together, they were really trying to come from a place of quality. Make the most of it, you know? Right on, brother. Right on. It’d be so easy for these guys to get together, whip off some old songs like it weren’t no thing, and the crowd would still go nuts. I appreciate the time and effort they clearly put into this whole production. That’s the real gift to us, right there.

As a bonus track on the DVD, Taj Mahal comes back to the stage solo and rips off a pretty stellar version of Stagger Lee. On its own, this is really neat. It also seems a little out of context of the setting of full band we’d enjoyed for the whole show. Was it an afterthought? Were they standing around right after the band left the stage following Corrine, Corrina and somebody said, ‘hey, Taj, go play your cool version of that old song?’ Who knows. Who cares? But it doesn’t add a whole lot to the main experience.

Overall, the DVD is just as much fun to watch as the CD is to listen to… again, and again, and again, and…

Buy this set, already. Go on!

Wynton Marsalis – Tune In Tomorrow

I’m a big fan of Wynton Marsalis and his music. His songs soar, and they are so technically perfect that it’s almost not fair to the rest of us. OK, forget the almost. The man is a living legend, proof that a lifetime of hard work and dedication pays off. Mix in an unshakable grace and calm, and oh yeah, don’t forget a little something called an otherwordly natural talent as well, for good measure. The man’s unstoppable. 

The music from his illustrious career is all over the map, too, from the American Songbook standards to trumpet concertos, from Baroque to Basin Street. He’s done solo work, all manner and sizes of groups, and is musical director of the Jazz At The Lincoln Center Orchestra. He equally loves Haydn and Ellington, and is a bandleader in the style of Art Blakey (as he was once his pupil). He won a Pulitzer Prize for his Blood On The Fields masterpiece (the first time it’s ever been awarded for a jazz recording!), and more Grammys than others can dream of in their wildest wet dreams. He’s like the Master Of The Horn. And that tone! So sweet! Mmmmmm-good!

Better yet (for fans like me), he seems to toss off albums in no time flat. Since beginning his recording career he’s released a ton of them (60-ish or more by now, insane for someone who’s been recording for less than 30 years) and they’re all excellent. I get the sense that he and his band can walk into a studio and, a week later, walk out having laid down nothing but tight, stellar tracks, all perfect for the album. Damn. And all of this on top of relentless touring, documentaries, and TV shows, and stops at schools all over the country to get the kids fired up about music (for which he deserves the highest praise). Whew!

So. This particular movie soundtrack is another favourite of mine. I saw the movie once, way back closer to the time it was released (over 15 years ago), and it was definitely different. Look at the cast – Keanu Reeves, Barbara Hershey and Peter Falk? Who dreamed that one up? Odd, yes, and interesting. But it’s this collection of songs that remains my enduring memory of the experience. This is happy music, New Orleans party music, the kind of stuff that would definitely make Baloo the bear dance, tilt his head back and shake his shoulders with joy.

Toss in some outstanding vocal tracks from Johnny Adams and Shirley Horn, and some 30’s radio show organ music (you’d have to see the film to know why), and this is an eclectic, brilliant and highly listenable album. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve played this CD over the years, but it’s a ton. It’s like an old friend, in that it understands when no one else seems to want to, knows when it can get away with cajoling me, and ultimately lifts me up whether I needed it or not.

If you’re a jazz-head, or a music snob, and you want better critiques of this man’s works, go read Stanley Crouch. In these pages I can only respond viscerally to Marsalis’ music, and my gut tells me this record (and all his others too) are unquestionably brilliant.

I hope Wynton Marsalis keeps making records for another million years. At least. And if they’re all as good as this one, or any of his others (you’re really spoiled for choice, folks, it’s true) the entire world will be all the better for it. Right on.
 

Track Listing:
01 Big Trouble In The Easy (Pedro Pops Up)
02 Kings Of The Garden District
03 Crescent City Crawl (On The St. Charles Streetcar Line)
04 Alligator Tail Drag (Mr. Alligator – Why You So Mean?)
05 May Be Fact Or Fiction (v. Johnny Adams)
06 Social Soft Shoe (Party At Olga’s)
07 Mama Leona (You Know You Not Spanish!)
08 I Can’t Get Started (v. Shirley Horn)
09 The Grand Marshall (Martin’s Big Break)
10 The Ways Of Love (Julia And Martin) (v. Shirley Horn)
11 On The Eve Of Entry
12 Don’t Run From Fun (Julia’s Decision)
13 Albanians (Why Us?)
14 Sunsettin’ On The Bayou (Toonin’ Tonight):
            1. Dusk On The Delta
            2. yas, yaz, yaz, all-night Jass
            3. Pre-morning Masquerade At The Café Du Monde
15 The Ways Of Love
16 Double Rondo On The River

Wynton Marsalis – Standard Time Volume 3: The Resolution Of Romance

We all have a record like this in our collections. Not necessarily a jazz record, it could be any kind of music that pleases you. But they are long-time friends, there when you really need them, not asking any questions until you’re ready for them, and then giving you exactly what you need every time. Every track speaks to you, reminds you of what’s important, shows you how far away from yourself you’ve gotten.

This is that album in my collection. I love it. I had it on cassette when it first came out, and then the CD not long after, so that means as of the time of this writing I’ve been playing these songs for 17 years. More than half of my life. Yeah, I know it pretty well. It’s seen me through a lot. And when I played it yesterday, it still filled me with that same old feeling it always has.

A jazz purist reading this review might think I’m off my rocker, say that there are better and more important albums than this. Well, I’m not about to go off on a snooty jazz rant about the form and structures here, or about the trumpet and piano work, at least not in a way that’ll sound snobby. This review is my gut reaction to an album that has meant a lot to me for a long time, not a deconstruction. These songs are perfect. Well-conceived, well-ordered, and played amazingly. The combination of Wynton and his Dad, Ellis, is stunning and the sounds of their chemistry will get into your blood and your head and stay there. Each song here is its own part of your life, a little musical time capsule of a time and place.

There are happy, joyful songs, and there are heart-achingly sad songs too. And mixed in are a whole lot of hopeful songs that exude romance in every note. As the title of the album suggests, Marsalis was searching for a definitive answer to love and romance, a way to best describe and capture it. Without question, to me, he succeeded.

I own many Marsalis albums, by Wynton, his brother Branford, and by their Dad. I listen to Wynton the most, though, because I was (and sometimes still am) a trumpet player myself. And this record is my favourite of all of them. It’s wonderful, and it just works.

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