Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Paul Smith Singers; Northridge Singers of California State University at Northridge; Morgan State University Choir; Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra; Los Angeles Philharmonic/Esa-Pekka Salonen, cond.
SONY CLASSICAL S2K 89817 (2 CDs) (F) (DDD) TT:  74:38 & 31:37

Jazz Mahler. According to Harry Connick, Jr., if you ask Wynton Marsalis (or his father, Ellis, for that matter) a question, you'd better make sure you have time to hear the answer. One thing tends to lead to another. It's all good, it's all interesting, but it is long. Mahler famously remarked that a symphony was a world. As a composer, Wynton Marsalis has that same compulsion to include everything he knows about music, music history, and world culture up to now. He knows a hell of a lot. The main difference between Mahler and Marsalis is that Mahler wants to include a world, Marsalis the world. What Marsalis really needs is a more ruthless sense for the essential—a vision that can refine the jumble of everything into a clear something. At 106 minutes and twelve substantial sections, All Rise is a work you'd better have time for.

It's fared better in Europe than in the States. The French, predictably, went gaga over it, and while I don't go so far, I don't think them out of line either. In the U. S., Marsalis has made too many enemies to get a clear-eyed look. I think especially of a small-minded, most off-the-point review in the New York Observer. A lot of people seem to think of Marsalis as arrogant, but I disagree. He's got opinions, of course, and the knowledge to back them up. However, he really is a teacher, like his father. He wants you to get it. People put him down for his involvement in the Ken Burns jazz series, especially his view of the current state of jazz as relatively fallow. Yet, nobody seems able to put a real giant forward today. Herbie Hancock? Chick Corea? Alice Coltrane? Compare them to Monk or Powell or Mingus or Gillespie or even Davis. Max Roach, Ornette Coleman, and Cecil Taylor are the remnants of something, not the seeds of something new. Marsalis himself, as a jazz player, harkens back to the Fifties and Sixties. Actually, I think Marsalis has it in him to be a giant, but not as a jazz player. He's ambitious for his music, and right now he pursues something that seems impossible: a composer of classical jazz music, a true fusion that takes into account not only the history of jazz, but the history of Modern European music as well.

Blood on the Fields, which by winning the Pulitzer proved the only purpose to the universe is whimsy, was so godawfully silly, only a genius could have written it. All Rise, however, marks a significant advance. No longer does Marsalis include something simply because he thought of it. He works on all his composing cylinders here, and he seems obsessed with structure, especially the structure of large works. The structural principle here seems the blues. All Rise runs to twelve movements (12-bar blues), three large sections (the ternary structure suggested by the blues) of four movements each, and ternary structures are seldom far away. The blues shows up most nakedly in the penultimate movement, "Saturday Night Slow Drag," as the ternary structure of the pop song turns up in the previous "Expressbrown Local." It would be amazing if it all hung together, and it really doesn't. Marsalis has written enough for at least three substantial pieces. However, each movement stands sturdily on its own, and I have no idea what the composer should have cut. I do consider the finale a miscalculation - a fairly close reproduction of New Orleans jazz and gospel. To me, Marsalis should have talked as much as possible in his own voice, rather than in the voice of somebody else. Musically, it's delightful. Rhetorically, it's so lightweight, it seems a mistake.

The work has a spiritual program: essentially, innocence, sin, and redemption. I don't begrudge Marsalis whatever he needs to get going. The text, by Marsalis himself, doesn't sink to the hilarious bathos of Blood on the Fields, but it's still pretty clunky. Marsalis is a composer, not a poet. You can't tell me that the words he comes up with work better than those of Robert Hayden, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sterling Knight, Countee Cullen, or Langston Hughes (or, for that matter, Andy Razaf). He really needs words worthy of the music to serve his evangelical impulse. He cripples himself in this regard.

Marsalis's musical ambitions rise fairly high. He follows the dream of Gershwin, Ellington, Taylor, Giuffre, Russell, Evans, and Schuller: how to get classical and jazz players together in one music. When I was young and breathtakingly stupid, I used to think this a matter of learning how to write for strings. I'm older and less stupid (I still think a jazz composer has to learn this), and I now see the problems as more fundamental. For one thing, jazz and classical music require different approaches to rhythm and attack. The rhythm section - drum kit, string bass, and sometimes guitar - is the engine that drives the jazz ensemble. The symphony orchestra rests on the bedrock of strings and employs percussion mainly as an exotic color. Strangely enough, I don't believe that a classical player has to improvise, particularly when one has capable jazz soloists at hand, certainly the case here. Marsalis proves he can write for strings in the "Wild Strumming of Fiddle" movement, which closes the first section. But he succeeds in integrating the strings (that is, giving them something to do other than "sweetening" the jazz ensemble) only in the first movement, "Jubal Step," and in solo passages of the "Latin" movement, "El 'Gran' Baille de la Reina."

The range of styles Marsalis has mastered made my jaw drop. He tips his hat to Ellington in "Expressbrown Local" and to the classic arrangers of spiritual in "The Halls of Erudition and Scholarship" (my candidate for Worst Title in the Entire Piece). One expects, and gets, great parts for woodwinds, but the brass writing magnificently exceeds even this. As I say, Marsalis has managed to write twelve wonderful movements. But All Rise fails to hold together. I have no idea why, for example, the second movement follows the first or the third movement the second. I have no idea why "El 'Gran' Baille" is in the third section and not the first. The order of the thing—beyond the spiritual program, the musical order—is important. With a different arrangement of movements, we would get a substantially different piece. For me, the third section, which should provide the emotional lift, fails to pay off, despite the quality of the individual movements ("Expressbrown Local," for example, counts as one of my highlights of the entire work), but playing with order has a really good chance of providing that emotional bang. Indeed, if through some serious flaw in the universe I were given the task of re-ordering, I'd seriously consider switching the first and last movements of the work. Ah well. There's always the program mode of my CD player. As it stands, I will probably listen to All Rise in fragments at a time.

Salonen keeps everything together, although does the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra really need a conductor? The choirs are good, the soloists (instrumental and vocal) wonderful. The engineering is a bit muddy in spots, but a lot indeed goes on. For me the virtues considerably outnumber the flaws.

S.G.S. (March 2003)