Why Wynton Marsalis Should Never Do Spoken Word

The soaring music of the trumpeter’s latest disc, “He and She” almost saves it from its open-mic interludes. Almost.

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The marriage of jazz and spoken word is an iffy one—the seemingly promising union is often better on paper than in practice. Such is the case with Wynton Marsalis’ newest disc, He and She (Blue Note), a clumsy endeavor that finds the celebrated trumpeter and composer in dual roles as bandleader and narrator of a story about the courtship between boys and girls.

Wanting poetry and shaky narration plague the 22 tracks in He and She; ten of the tracks are interludes simply titled “Poem.” These bursts of prose never weave themselves into the music; instead, for better and often worse, they stand alone.

Take this interlude, for example: “My heart is a swallow/swooping down to taunt/the arrogant lovestruck coward who dares approach you/disguised as a man.” And then, “You are the razor rim of some sudden primal chasm/best broached boldly.” This kind of rambling—a distracting and unnecessary audio speed bump—feels more like something from a Janet Jackson disc.

This isn’t the first time Marsalis has delved into spoken word. His first significant foray was on the 1989 LP, The Majesty of the Blues (Columbia). And it was doomed by a tedious, 16-minute-long sermon, “The New Orleans Function/Premature Autopsies,” written by Stanley Crouch and spoken by the now-infamous Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Marsalis soldiered on with his exploration of long-form composition and nailed it in 1997 with the incredible, three-hour-plus jazz libretto Blood on the Fields (Columbia) which earned him a Pulitzer Prize. Next came From the Plantation to the Penitentiary (Blue Note, 2007), a post-Hurricane Katrina rant aimed at American pop culture that concluded with the venomous, “Where Y’all At?” on which he attacked mainstream hip-hop by, of all things, rapping! With rhyming skills that would have gotten him booed at any respectable MC battle and lyrics that seemed as if they were written by a tyrannical Bill Cosby, the song and disc became a controversial nadir of Marsalis’ esteemed career.

Last year, Marsalis kept fans guessing once again, teaming with country star Willie Nelson, for the unlikely collaboration Two Men with the Blues (Blue Note). The odd couple covered a batch of Great American Songbook classics and country tunes, becoming one of Blue Note Records’ top-selling discs of 2008.

The collaboration turned out to be a fine maneuver for Marsalis, allowing him to lighten up and shed some of his noble severity. And indeed, some of the ebullience that marked Two Men with the Blues tries to seep into his latest project, He and She.

Though he tries to come off as humorous in the disc’s mini-sermons, unfortunately, a sanctimonious tenor mars prose that at times resembles a message from the Family Research Council. It doesn’t help that Crouch’s liner notes lead off with a grouchy jab at the music the young folk like these days: “Mediocrity and submission to adolescent trends might form the low road to commercial success, but only quality is truly liberating.”

Nevertheless, the music does save He and She from complete mediocrity. Marsalis more than compensates for his lyrical missteps through the music, which finds his sterling trumpet fronting a small ensemble, composed of newly arrived pianist Dan Nimmer and longtime collaborators: drummer Ali Jackson, bassist Carlos Henriquez and saxophonist Walter Blanding.

Perhaps to accentuate the love theme, Marsalis and company focus on jazz waltzes that vary from vintage Crescent City-style swing to bolero to modern jazz. Marsalis’ trumpet is in exquisite form throughout as he mostly pares down his coruscating improvisations to their sparkling essence.

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