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John H. Armwood Jazz History Lecture Nashville's Cheekwood Arts Center 1989

Monday, March 05, 2007

New CDs Critics’ Choice By THE NEW YORK TIMES

“From the Plantation
to the Penitentiary”

(Blue Note)

From his landmark album “Black Codes (From the Underground)” through his Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio “Blood on the Fields,” the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis has always found avenues for social critique. But his new quintet album delivers a fresh jolt to the system, by blowing apart the refuge of allegory. Oh, and he raps. But we’ll get to that.

Mr. Marsalis delegates most of the album’s vocal duties to a remarkable newcomer, Jennifer Sanon. Singing in a clarion tone with minimal vibrato, she projects a timbre not unlike Mr. Marsalis’s trumpet, carrying the album the way that Abbey Lincoln carried Max Roach and Oscar Brown Jr.’s “Freedom Now Suite.”

But that was a cry for civil rights; what troubles Mr. Marsalis is the state of civility itself. His lyrics disparage a culture of heartless poverty, chic misogyny and rapacious greed. He delivers the sharpest jabs himself, quasi-rapping on a track called “Where Y’All At?”:

All you ’60s radicals and world-beaters
Righteous revolutionaries, Camus-readers
Liberal students, equal-rights pleaders
What’s goin’ on now that y’all are the leaders?

Don’t be fooled: Mr. Marsalis still has no amicable feelings for hip-hop, the genre his lyrics elsewhere deride as “ghetto minstrelsy.” But while this album builds on blues and jazz traditions — by way of a band that has studiously conquered them — it also hungers for relevance.

“You got to speak the language the people are speakin’,” barks Mr. Marsalis, “ ’Specially when you see the havoc it’s wreakin’.” But he seems aware that fighting fire with fire, in some cases, might only fuel the flames. NATE CHINEN

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