[JPL] Marsalis wields sharp blade in 'Plantation'

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Marsalis wields sharp blade in 'Plantation'

By George Varga
UNION-TRIBUNE POP MUSIC CRITIC
March 4, 2007

When it comes to hip-hop, jazz great Wynton Marsalis' three teenaged sons
know ³that I hate it and feel it to be some BS that is reductive for black
people.²
As the most high-profile jazz artist and advocate of the past 25 years,
Wynton Marsalis has become more widely quoted than any other jazz performer
of his generation. Even so, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and
trumpeter sounded shocked when recently asked about the distinctive drum
sound on ³Doin' (Y)Our Thing,² a standout song on ³From the Plantation to
the Penitentiary,² his new album.
³I would never get asked a question like that. Because, first, it's about
the music, and that's not what's being asked about this album,² Marsalis
said.

No, it isn't. But that's hardly surprising given the provocative subject
matter addressed on ³Plantation,² for which he wrote all of the lyrics
himself.

The album, due out Tuesday on Blue Note Records, is already being hailed and
attacked as the most controversial work of Marsalis' career. The topics he
covers on the seven-song release include blind consumerism and the misogyny
and violent imagery in pop music and hip-hop, which he regards as an
especially demeaning form of contemporary minstrelsy. Other songs blast
corrupt political leaders, the state of our increasingly polarized nation
and the modern manifestations of slavery.

³I did an interview in England recently, and they wanted to know what I
liked about hip-hop,² Marsalis said, speaking by phone from his Manhattan
apartment overlooking Lincoln Center. ³And if you answer that you don't like
it, you have to answer a bunch of other questions. When they write that
article, it will be pro hip-hop.

³Here in the United States, most people are asking me something about why am
I talking about these topics, or (telling me) that it's different from what
I've been doing. I told them I don't perceive it that way. . . . I've been
frustrated with the state of the nation and the culture since high school,
and I've been pretty clear about it all these years.²

The lyrics on ³Plantation² are sung mostly by Jennifer Sanon, 21, who has
worked with Marsalis periodically over the past three years. The trumpeter
himself contributes the chant-like vocals to the song ³Where Y'All At?²

The sometimes blunt messages conveyed are all Marsalis', which may surprise
those listeners used to hearing him in the all-instrumental format he has
favored almost exclusively since the early 1980s.

Equally striking is the painting on the cover of ³Plantation,² which shows a
young African-American man whose gold neck chain seems to represent both a
lust for bling and a shackle that can't be broken.

³It's not even a matter of an artist speaking out, but of people in
general,² said Marsalis, who in 1997 became the first jazz artist to win a
Pulitzer Prize. ³You're entitled to your opinion, and to voice it. That's
what makes this country different from others: It was founded on our ability
to do that.²

An articulate champion for American culture, Marsalis in 1984 became the
first artist to ever win Grammy Awards simultaneously for both jazz and
classical albums. He held nothing back in his acceptance speech, saying:
³I'd like to thank the great masters of American music ­ Charlie Parker,
Louis Armstrong and Thelonious Monk ­ all the guys who set a precedent in
Western art and gave an art form to the American people that can't be
limited by enforced trends or bad taste.²

Marsalis chuckles at the controversy he created as a young jazz star, simply
by speaking his mind.

³I was so definitive in my opinions and sometimes I wasn't as delicate about
expressing them,² he said. ³I wasn't runing for office. I was just saying
what I thought and I was in the minority. Since I was one of the only ones
saying it in the early 1980s, I was an easy target. I got a lot of good
publicity, too. When I was young, I was wild. I just said what I wanted to
say and didn't care what anybody thought about it.

³Now, I'm 45; I can't give the same type of interview I did when I was 19. I
don't play music the same way, I don't talk the same way. I have kids who
are 18, and I'm in different state of life. And the whole racial dynamic of
the country has changed over the past 25 years. There's still a lot of work
to be done, but definitely things have changed for the better.²

Marsalis doesn't make things easy for his fans on ³Plantation,² which in
addition to Sanon's vocals features his excellent quintet. It's a
challenging work that is alternately jarring and inviting. Some of his
lyrical couplets lack the grace and subtlety of his increasingly eloquent
trumpet work, but the album still rewards attentive listening.

The title track is deliberately discordant, while some of the intricate
vocal lines and arrangements at first seem like a musical maze waiting to be
navigated. The album also juxtaposes Marsalis' biting lyrics with Sanon's
airy delivery.

³Well, she has a very light, pretty voice and there's a lot of seriousness
and anger (in the album),² he said. ³It's a strange kind of combination of
something that's very sweet, but has an edge. A sweet voice makes the music
more striking.²

On the song ³Find Me,² Marsalis writes from several points of view,
including that of men, women and both the homeless and the affluent, as they
observe each other on a city street. Then there's ³Where Y'All At?,² which
he wrote following Hurricane Katrina's devastation of his hometown of New
Orleans. The song is an elegy for his beloved Crescent City and a lament
about the government bungling that has stalled its recovery.

³That was an interesting thing that happened on American TV after Katrina,
with all these people asking: 'Have you seen so and so?' ² Marsalis said.
³It was like a spiritual return to slavery: 'Have you seen my grandmother?
My father? My uncle?' ²

The poignancy of the cautiously optimistic ³Where Y'All At?² is offset by
the scathing ³Love and Broken Bones,² a ballad that pines for a return to
romance while blasting You thug life coons / You modern day minstrels with
your songless tunes.

³Hip-hop came about when I was a young man, so it's an old form for my
kids,² said Marsalis, the father of three teen-aged sons. ³They were raised
with it and they know, without any question, that I hate it and feel it to
be some BS that is reductive for black people. I'm not talking about all of
it.

³My sons, through the years since they were kids, I would listen to one of
their albums and analyze and talk about it, and they'd have to listen to
whatever I chose. One Saturday, I had to listen to 50 Cent's album. I
listened to every song, talked about it and played the vamps from his songs
on the piano, because my sons play music on a rudimentary level. I talked
about his philosophy and what he said in his songs.²

In turn, Marsalis made his sons listen to Beethoven's ³Hammerklavier²
Sonata, John Coltrane and Duke Ellington.

³I picked the highest levels of music,² he said. ³Of course, they didn't
enjoy it, but I wanted them to learn the range of music. We've had many
dialogues, but I don't expect my kids to not be a part of (contemporary)
culture.²

Marsalis, who has never been married, takes fatherhood very seriously. But
he was opposed to hip-hop's emphasis on violence, misogyny and materialism
well before he became a single parent, and has long objected to the music's
constant use of the n-word.

³The pathology of somebody getting shot is not entertainment to me,² he
said. ³Somebody swiping a credit card in a woman's bottom in a music-video
is not entertaining. If you want to insult people, it's not entertaining. My
sons know I feel that way. But I give them latitude to do their thing,
because that's what they'll do anyway.²

Ultimately, though, Marsalis remains a cautious optimist.

³We have such a rich culture, but when you look at our leadership, we're
very uncultured,² he said. ³A lot of times, we act out of our lower selves.
But I believe in this country and its ability to do better. We have a great
country and a great way of life. We just have to work on it, just like we
work on ourselves. And this album is just being a part of that. It's saying:
'OK, this is where we are, but can you see where we stand, you and me?' ²


George Varga: (619) 293-2253; george.varga at uniontrib.com

 

 
 
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