OH, HOW YOU WANT to hate Wynton Marsalis.
He is so technically proficient at his craft -- the trumpet -- that he seems soulless. The notes comes flowing out in such an error-free pattern as to render him almost robotic in his perfection.
In addition, Marsalis' onstage reticence -- he hardly communicates verbally with his audience and is always seemingly looking away -- can be taken by some as arrogance, perhaps even a sense of contempt for the folks who make it all possible.
And even if you don't read any of that into his performing persona, it can certainly be seen in his printed comments, in which he has criticized no less than the great Miles Davis, the father of modern jazz trumpet, and the entire field of fusion jazz.
Having said all that, it was impossible to hate Marsalis last night as he and his six-piece band turned in a bravura, blistering 75-minute exhibition at Shriver Hall on the Johns Hopkins campus.
And, for a change, there was a sense of bonding from the other side, as Marsalis joked, smiled and generally warmed up to the full house.
From the beginning, Marsalis promised that "tonight, I think we'll play a lot of blues," and so they did, marching through the world of blues, from the abstract to the traditional and back again.
The uptempo blues were represented by Sonny Rollins "Blues and Boogie," as Eric Reed played a furious piano riff, putting the four-part horn section through its paces.
The simply titled "Blues," kicked off by a brilliant tenor saxophone introduction from Todd Williams and punctuated by a fine turn by Wycliffe Gordon on the muted trombone, were a brilliant example of the reflective side of the blues.
"The Majesty of the Blues" was an avant garde reading of the blues, featuring a syncopated rhythm line and a strange but effective collaboration between Marsalis' muted trumpet, Gordon's trombone and Reginald Veal on the standing, acoustic bass, which he played with a bow, rather than plucking with his fingers.
Veal, in fact, brought life to a largely misunderstood instrument, which is played more often than not -- both acoustically and electronically -- for rhythmic accompaniment. Instead, through the richly talented Veal, the audience was allowed to see the bass' melodic possibilities.
Without question, the evening's highlight was "Blues from New Orleans," which picked the enthralled audience up and delivered them to Bourbon St.
The concert's one and thankfully only drum solo came in this piece, and was delivered by Herlin Riley, who brought the percussion improvisation forth, but kept it within the framework of the piece, as opposed to most drum solos, which wander and are largely incoherent, usually grinding a song to a complete halt.
Meanwhile, the horn quartet was swinging and making merriment, dropping in a line of "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town," for holiday effect.
But still, Marsalis provided the unexpected treat of the evening with his warmth. Instead of looking dour, he was upbeat and funny, warning the crowd, for example, not to even bother Christmas shopping if they hadn't already started.
And his sense of humor even extended to the music, about which Marsalis is also normally deadly serious. In "Crying and Laughing Blues," he played his trumpet so muted as to make the sound approximate the cry of a cat and the laugh of a hyena.
The opening act, the Carl Filipiak Group, was a fine example of good fusion jazz played well.
Filipiak, a graduate of Essex Community College, played a warm, inviting lead guitar that was reminiscent of Larry Carlton, an excellent Los Angeles session player, while Dave Fairall's saxophone riffs called to mind those of David Sanborn.
The pair was brilliant on their cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing," a slower piece, with good support work from bassist Jim Charlsen and drummer Greg Grainger.