Marsalis finds sanctuary in music

June 03, 1994|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Musically speaking, Wynton Marsalis has a great life right now.

He couldn't be more creative, or keep any busier, than he is at the moment. "I have 13 records that are recorded," he says. "In the can. I have four notebooks that are full of music that I want to record. I just keep creating, going around the world. I have a good time."

As he speaks over the phone, Marsalis is in New Orleans, rehearsing his band for a two-week tour of churches to promote his current recording, "In This House, On This Morning." Once that is finished, then it's back to business as usual -- writing, recording, teaching and almost constant concertizing.

"We've been doing this for years, now, you know what I mean?" he says of his schedule. "The guys in the band, we've known each other 15, 20 years in many cases. We're dedicated to playing, and that's what we do with our lives. We go to places and cities, we get invited into people's houses, we see our friends, we have young musicians come with their horns . . .

"I have been on the road myself for 15 years. Since 1979. So nothing gets in the way of us having a great time and playing. Nothing."

Well, almost nothing. Because as much as Marsalis enjoys talking about his music and the kind of creative life he and his bandmates lead, more often than not his encounters with the press find him being grilled more about non-musical matters.

"Like, people ask me all the time, 'What do I think about rap music?' " he complains. "But the discussion is never about the music. They just want to know what I think about whether they curse or not.

"That's my most frequently asked question. And the deep thing about the question is it's not even about music. So most of my life is spent playing music, studying it, participating in it, performing it around the world. But when I'm interfacing with the public, who's interested in what I have to say, it's always about some, some -- I don't even know what it's about half the time. It's never about anything I know about. I don't know about rap music. You ask me to name 15 rap albums, I can't do it."

Given the richness and depth of Marsalis' recent work, it's easy to understand his frustration. "In This House, On This Morning" isn't just another jazz album, but a full-blown celebration of the church tradition in African-American music.

Granted, the connection between jazz and gospel music may not seem as obvious to casual listeners as, say, the link between sanctified spirituals and soul singing. Everybody knows Aretha Franklin came out of the church music tradition, but aren't Marsalis' roots more in Miles Davis?

Not necessarily. As he points out, "most of the guys in the band grew up playing in the church." Moreover, many of the things we think of as jazz devices have their roots in church music.

"First is call and response," he says. "Second would be that the basis of the blues is the Amen cadence in church music. That goes back to Bach. And then of course, anything in the blues tradition that the jazz tradition has appropriated, like the shout, the holler and the scream -- these things all come out of the church tradition.

"Also, the convention of a soloist and then an ensemble, that comes out of the church tradition. Like where one person stands up, and then everyone else is saying it -- that's like a jazz conception."

All of those devices are present in "In This House, On This Morning," from spirited ensemble passages to the glossolalial growls of the soloists.

There's also an overriding sense of structure to the piece. "In This House" is not a mass in the classical sense -- there's no Kyrie, no Angus Dei, no Gloria in excelsis Deo -- but it does follow a narrative scheme and maintain a sense of thematic unity.

"If you have an hour and 45 minutes of music, you're not going to be able to keep the structure of the music naturally," says Marsalis. "You have to be thinking thematically. You have to be very focused and concentrated, and maintain that intent throughout the entire piece.

"It's all a natural reflection of musical experience. But you can't achieve something natural unless you have a form for it. It's just like the way a person speaks in sentence structure. They might not know that it's a noun and a verb and an object, but they know that there's something about that that makes sense."

Maintaining that sense of order and structure is important to Marsalis. "I really don't like any random elements in my music," he says. "I like things to happen that are unpredictable, but I'm not really attracted to the sound of chaos. A lack of sophistication and knowledge of music -- that's not a sound that appeals to me.

"That's what the cats in the band are always saying. Whenever somebody new comes into the band, we always tell them, 'That's not what we do on this bandstand.' We're up here to play music. We've got something very serious that we've got to do."

Wynton Marsalis

When: Monday, June 6, 8 p.m. (6 p.m. dinner). Reception to follow. Proceeds to benefit Children's Defense Fund and Children's Ministry of Enon Baptist Church.

Where: Enon Baptist Church, 601 N. Schroeder St.

TC Tickets: $20, $15 for seniors and students; $35 with reception; $50 with dinner; $60 with dinner and reception.

Call: (410) 728-1490

"House" call

To hear excerpts from Wynton Marsalis' "In This House, On This Morning," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6244 after you hear the greeting.

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