2. Four Early Wynton Marsalis/Jeff Watts Records
1) Interview with Wynton Marsalis (Part 1): Discussion of Congo Square
2) Interview with Wynton Marsalis (Part 2): Blindfold test, “Knozz-Moe-King,” general discussion
3) The “J" Word introduces side posts:
2. Four Early Wynton Marsalis/Jeff Watts Records
3. Current Perceptions
4. On the AACM
5. Reading the Black Jazz Writers
I mourned the departure of Jeff "Tain" Watts from the Wynton Marsalis bands, because I thought it brought out the very best in both players. All great jazz has tension in it, and here was a showdown between a trumpet player who related fervently to Louis Armstrong and a drummer who executed the loudest, fastest, most complicated and innovative rhythms with postmodern surgical skill. The four classic albums documenting their profound chemistry together remain the best Young Lion records from the 80’s. They are also among the best of the era regardless of genre: those who have never bothered with them due to ideological concerns have missed out on some great jazz.
Black Codes (From the Underground). The first sentence of Stanley Crouch’s liner notes is famous:
As the cover tells you, it all comes down to knowing and wanting to know, to study and experience, to rebellion against the bondage of ignorance.
The first three albums, Wynton Marsalis, Think of One, and Hot House Flowers have their moments but are a little green. From the first moment of Black Codes, though, this music has real individuality and oomph. At a few points, Watts is hitting so hard that it seems like the drums are going to fall off their stands. It is rather humbling to contemplate the ages of the musicians playing: Wynton: 23, Branford: 24, Kirkland: 29, Watts: 24, Charnett Moffett: 17.
Every composition on Black Codes is strong. The title piece does something I have never heard before or since: Instead of the whole head being repeated after solos like usual, the opening rhythm section phrase is followed by a slow, drunken version of the first few bars of the horn theme... and that’s it. Brilliant.
Moffett is heard to good effect on "Wee Folks," although he could be 20% louder in the mix the rest of the time. Wynton and Tain sound made for each other. Branford is in there too, although perhaps he's stronger on tenor than on soprano. However, the best reason to have Black Codes is for the piano solos by Kenny Kirkland, which are rhythmically impeccable motivic fantasies, worked out at the highest level of virtuosity, that nevertheless retain the kind of funky casualness that all great jazz players have.
I hardly know everything in Kirkland’s discography -- indeed, Kirkland is so important and influential, I have taken pains not to listen to him too much -- but I have yet to hear a record that says “this is the real Kenny Kirkland” like Black Codes (from the Underground) does.
J Mood. Just after the recording of Black Codes, Branford and Kirkland left Wynton to tour with Sting. Apparently, this created a lot of bad feeling; in Moving to Higher Ground, Wynton says he contemplated quitting jazz over what he saw as a betrayal. His savior, he goes on to say, was Marcus Roberts, the “J-Master” referenced in the title piece of this album, which was recorded only eleven months after Black Codes.
I remember well getting J Mood at the record store when it had just come out, worried and disappointed that I hadn’t heard of the pianist or bassist. The first tune allayed my fears. To this day, I have heard few better examples of a medium-slow minor blues than “J Mood.” At one point, Wynton sustains a plaintive high note while Watts unleashes a death-defying catastrophe underneath.
Has any other ferocious technician in recent jazz history restrained their playing as much as Wynton Marsalis? He is admirably content to play a pretty melodic phase while letting the rhythm section burn. His tone -- huge, burnished, clean -- is a big asset, and probably the secret to how simply and memorably he can play on something like "J Mood."
The other truly great piece on this disc (which is perhaps not quite as good as Black Codes overall) is Donald Brown’s “Insane Asylum,” which teeters several times into genuine madness. I recommend this track to anyone who still doesn’t think Marsalis's music belongs in the canon of important jazz.
Another interesting piece is “Skain’s Domain." Again, I must quote Stanley Crouch’s liner notes: “For those interested in the structure, the song is twenty-seven bars long, with a two/four measure at the nineteenth bar.” How many inexperienced musicians, after reading this description, played “Skain’s Domain” over and over, desperately trying to hear this mildly obtuse form?
Standard Time Volume One. Long-range planning is beginning to replace intuition in the rhythm section: Roberts and Watts are really getting into weird call and response patterns, sort of like an updated Red Garland/Philly Joe Jones relationship, with 4/4 always just next to a sped-up 6 or a slowed-down 3. For me, the songs that have deliberate rhythmic complexity forcibly injected into them from the git go -- “Caravan,” “April In Paris,” “Cherokee,” “The Song Is You,” “Autumn Leaves” -- are far more exciting than the relatively “straight” versions of the rest of the material.
As much as I admire Kenny Kirkland, it seems indisputable that Marcus Roberts has a more natural feel for II/V/I standard harmony. Kirkland’s genius lay more in shifting around patterns and scales in the tradition of McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock, whereas Roberts’s heroes are clearly those who’s life work was voice-leading: Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Ahmad Jamal. Despite his relative inexperience, Roberts plays with immense authority. In fact, at times his comping seems to be on top of the trumpet, a style Marsalis would encourage in all of his subsequent pianists.
Live at Blues Alley. This two-disc set is a summation of the accomplishments of the previous aIbums, with high-energy renditions of repertoire from each disc. (What a difference between versions of “Knozz-Moe-King” on Think of One and Live at Blues Alley!) I played the brilliant, virtuosic, abstract trumpet solo from “Knozz-Moe-King” for Wynton, and our discussion of this track is one of the highlights of the interview.
The first version of the blues “Juan” is also phenomenal. The trumpet solo is great, but then the piano solo is stratospheric, with Roberts repeating and liquifying a simple blues riff until it becomes transcendent. Seldom is straight-ahead jazz so exciting on record.
While Robert Hurst occasionally comes more to the foreground on Blues Alley -- he influences Wynton’s blues choruses on “Much Later” -- overall the rhythm section work on uptempo pieces like “Knozz-Moe-King,” “Chambers of Tain,” “Delfeayo’s Dilemma,” and “Skain’s Domain” is maniacal. I have never heard more imposed odd-meters and metric modulation anywhere, ever. This is Tain’s home. Roberts’s coy placing of the tune to “Cherokee” is impossible to count correctly.
Again, as I theorized earlier, this constant aggressive rhythmic displacement seems somehow connected to fusion, or if not fusion than some sort of odd-meter Bartokian folk dance or other non-jazz even-eighth music. It’s not really “swing” - I mean, of course, it is swinging, but it doesn’t have a constant celebration of what some older musicians call “spang-a-lang.”
My response is, “Who needs ‘spang-a-lang’ when you have all this happening shit?” It’s even arguable that when Watts is laying back and playing medium-tempo brushes on both Standard Time Volume One and Live at Blues Alley, the music is, weirdly, less swinging.
However, that’s not what Roberts and Marsalis seemed to think about it. In the liner notes to the next Marsalis record, The Majesty of the Blues, Wynton is quoted as saying:
I knew that when I did that album at Blues Alley that I wasn’t going to do another record in that type of style – all those really complex rhythms, playing fast, wild.
As far as I know, neither Marsalis nor Roberts has played music with heavy polyrhythmic drum-piano interaction in the last twenty years. Instead, each has preferred rhythm sections that never lose sight of "spang-a-lang."
I didn’t tell Wynton I quit buying his records when Herlin Riley replaced Jeff Watts, because these days I am really trying to open up to Riley, too. (Riley is wonderful on a couple of tracks on Congo Square.) However, the fact that I chose to play “Knozz-Moe-King” for him in our interview was surely an indicator of my allegiance. About the Riley-powered septet, Wynton said to me:
People, at that time – they would always say, "That was much better than that other shit you was doing." That was just the general vibe. Promoters, people would come back and they’d be like, "That shit there. Keep them. Don’t do that other shit.”
I admit I was blown away as a 17-year-old seeing that sextet live in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. It's hard for me to imagine that I wouldn’t have been even more excited seeing Tain with him, though.
I am curious to see how it all shakes out. Wynton and Marcus Roberts are both confident that history will judge them as having made the correct artistic decisions in the 90’s. But if either of them does ever decide to play with Tain again, I will be first in line to buy my ticket.