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Wynton Marsalis

He And She


by Ian Mann

April 08, 2009


Magnificent writing and playing but flawed by Marsalis' indulgent spoken narrative

Marsalis’ latest release in a lengthy career is his fifth for Blue Note and is a typically ambitious project that combines both music and the spoken word. As his starting point Marsalis takes the theme of relationships between men and women and his narrative explores the nature of these over time. He explores the rituals of courtship, partnership, gender roles and the effects of memory and the passage of time on male/female relationships, setting it all in the context of jazz history.

The album was recorded “live in the studio” after the material had been “road tested” in front of a live audience at the Iron Horse Club in North Hampton, Massachusetts. Marsalis uses a quintet consisting of himself on trumpet, Walter Blanding on tenor and soprano saxes, Dan Nimmer on piano plus a rhythm section of Carlos Henriquez (bass) and Al Jackson (drums). 
Much of the music is in ? or waltz time, reflecting on the nature of the waltz as a courtship dance in keeping with the theme of the album. He also draws inspiration from Max Roach’s “Jazz in ? Time” particularly his “Valse Hot” plus Duke Ellington’s experiments in the tempo such as “Lady Mac” from “Sweet, Sweet, Thunder”. Besides these jazz antecedents the ballet music of Twyla Tharp and the paintings of Henri Matisse are also mentioned as inspirations.

The album runs to a massive twenty two tracks with ten of these being spoken poems intoned by Marsalis in a decidedly portentous manner. Most of these deal in fairly obvious truisms concerning male/female romantic relationships and he even reprises the previous nine poems for the album’s closing spoken word title track. The narrative probably works fine in a live context (in the style of Abram Wilson’s “Ride! Ferris Wheel To The Modern Day Delta”) but on album once you get past the first few hearings the words merely distract the listener and interrupt the flow of the music. This is a pity as the music, as you would expect from someone of Marsalis’ ability, is very good indeed. But there’s no escaping the fact that “He And She” is that dreaded beast a “concept album” and as such is fundamentally flawed. Maybe the words of the “concept” should have been consigned to the CD booklet and used to illustrate the music that way. Instead Marsalis cannot resist the urge to preach at his listeners rather than letting them make up their own minds about the underlying themes.
I must admit I’ve always had a bit of a problem with Marsalis. For all his undoubted chops I’ve always found his dogmatic and conservative stance rather off-putting and some of his grander ideas merely pretentious. I’ve always preferred brother Branford who always seems a much more humorous and down to earth character and one rather more inclined to musical experimentation. 
Turning now to the music Marsalis touches a number of bases with his revivalist stylings. The playful “Schoolboy” introduces traditional elements from Marsalis’ native New Orleans. The leader’s muted wah wah trumpet recalls Bubber Miley’s work with Duke Ellington, Nimmer plays some fine honky tonk piano, Blanding reprises Sidney Bechet on soprano and Henriquez contributes a fine bowed bass solo with Jackson good naturedly holding it all together. An enjoyable start. 

“The Sun And The Moon” is more overtly romantic with Marsalis’ pure tones combining well with Blanding’s smoky tenor. Nimmer now shows a delightfully delicate touch at the piano and the sympathetic support from the rhythm section is exemplary.

The jaunty, lushly arranged “Sassy” lives up to it’s title with Blanding’s sinuous soprano sharing the limelight with Marsalis’ dazzlingly agile trumpeting. Nimmer’s flowing piano also shows up well and there are a series of delightful breaks for the swinging rhythm team. 

The brief but atmospheric “Fears” is a feature for the excellent Henriquez, his plucked solo cushioned by ghostly horns and ethereal percussion.

Next we come to the twelve minute magnum opus “The Razor Rim”, arguably the centre piece of the album and certainly the stand out track in purely musical terms. With time signatures switching from 3 to 5 (a la Elvin Jones) to 4 this is an ambitious piece that harbours some great playing. Blanding’s tenor is suitably cutting, Marsalis blows up a storm and Nimmer’s percussive solo recalls the torrential style of McCoy Tyner. Henriquez and Jackson provide magnificent propulsion and also feature in brief but brilliant solo cameos. Terrific stuff.

Following the brief melancholy of “Zero”, Marsalis schedules four musical items under the common theme of “first”. The titles speak for themselves; “First Crush” flutters lightly then segues into the gentle “First Slow Dance”. Here Nimmer’s delicate piano combines with Blanding’s smoky tenor and Marsalis’ tender trumpet in a lushly romantic setting. “First Kiss” adds a playful element to the prevailing mood with delightfully detailed drumming from Jackson. “First Time” reprises some of the trad elements of “School Boy” and also brings in a Latin component. Marsalis’ blues inflected trumpet is outstanding and Henriquez contributes another outstanding solo. 

“Girls” is appropriately pretty with Marsalis and Nimmer taking the instrumental honours in another fine group performance.

The final musical item is the blues “A Train, A Banjo And A Chicken Wing”. This jazz version of the country blues is another of the record’s stand out tracks. Wonderfully bluesy piano and tenor set the tone with Marsalis’ stunning trumpet putting the icing on the cake. His vocally inflected growling and stunning high register playing is real show stopping stuff.
There is some magnificent playing and writing on “He And She” with all members of the band making a brilliant contribution. Musically this is a highly democratic unit who complement each other superbly. 

As for the poetic content this may wear a bit thin after a while so keep the skip button handy and just enjoy the music in it’s own right.

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