March 6, 2007

Shortcuts—Wynton Marsalis's From the Plantation to the Penitentiary

Wynton Marsalis has never been interested in just making music. From the beginning of his career, he’s delivered his jazz with a message—savaging jazz-rock fusion, exploring the legacy of segregation, and championing a conservative interpretation of jazz history. Now, the world’s most powerful jazzman (Marsalis is the artistic director of New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center and the music’s most recognizable name) has released From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, an overtly political album that attempts to mesh Marsalis’s passion for fiery rhetoric with his love of traditional, carefully arranged jazz.

Throughout the album, Marsalis and his quintet play with accomplished musicianship but little spontaneity, rarely straying from the tight rhythmic and harmonic structure. Marsalis’s words, on the other hand, speak with reckless verve, decrying what he sees as the violence, decadence, and complacency of modern America. For the most part, the music and the message fail to match each other. On “Find Me,” vocalist Jennifer Sanon is full of elegant refinement even as she sings, “I see starving people screaming/ crushed as we rush on our way./ Say can you see.” This disjunction of music and words might seem like an attempt at irony, but I think it’s more a consequence of Marsalis’s musical conservatism. Even when he wants to shout, he can’t bear to let the music be anything less than pretty.

While the playing is far too guarded for the rhetoric, Marsalis succeeds in melding music and message on two of the album’s tracks. On “Love and Broken Hearts,” Sason plunges into a romantic ballad that oozes with satire, cooing with a wry smile through the lines, “Oh safari seeker and thug life coons/ You modern day minstrels and your song-less tunes.” Here, the restraint of the music is placed in obvious contrast to the words, and the result is humorous and effective. On the album’s final track, “Where Y’All At?” Marsalis speaks his own lyrics, giving them the gruff, chiding voice that they called for all along. From the Plantation to the Penitentiary could have been an important political and artistic statement, but for the most part, Marsalis plays it so straight that his raw anger is doused in a sea of careful cool.