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Marsalis' Mood

John Weatherman
Contributing Writer[at] / @TheHeadIn

Wynton Marsalis. The guy who played like Buddy Bolden (on a track from Live At The Village Vanguard). The guy who sounds like Louis Armstrong. The guy who's stuck in the past.

It's a popular conception of Marsalis - a die hard traditionalist who hates the sound of dissonance and can't see past 1964.

It's not a totally wrong conception, but it is one without nuance. Luckily, that nuance is easily found in Marsalis' own music.

An especially nuanced, but often overlooked, record from the trumpeters best years is one which not only shows Marsalis' mastery of his instrument but also is one of the best examples of a tribute record out there - Marsalis Plays Monk.

A tribute album is a tricky proposition requiring a good deal of stylistic tightrope walking - especially when the musician being celebrated is Thelonious Monk. The danger is in making a record that tries too hard to replicate Monk's playing, which is foolish, or one that tries too hard not to, which is merely superficial. It's just as painful to hear Peter Bernstein glibly and flawlessly glide through "Brilliant Corners" (a tune that Sonny Rollins, Clark Terry and Oscar Pettiford famously couldn't play) as it is to suffer through the plinks and plonks of misguided tribute.

That Wynton seems like the perfect candidate to do both makes the success of Marsalis Plays Monk, released in 1999, all the more gratifying to hear.

The set list is a good mix of the obvious and the (relatively) obscure; we get "Monk's Mood" and "Hackensack" and "Reflections," but we also hear "Brake's Sake" and the whirlwind "Four In One" and a personal favorite, "Let's Cool One."

Part of what makes Plays Monk a success is that Marsalis and the band - a similar ensemble to the one which played some of these tunes on Live At The Village Vanguard (released the same year) - find the perfect balance between the two approaches, the glibly robotic and the copycat. "Brake's Sake" is a good example - although the piano makes some Monkian stabs in the intro, once the melody begins, it's pure Marsalis. The seamlessness of the ensemble, the gracefully sliding harmonies and driving swing, and Marsalis' own trumpet sound - derivative perhaps, but derivative in its own way, which is all we can really ask of anyone - all put his own stamp on the material.

Or is it the other way around?

I think one of the fatal flaws of most tribute albums is that the material can supersede style; a preoccupation with doing the music right can distract from just making plain good music. Musicians all have influences, and those influences come out in the music they make. But when someone takes time to really highlight one of those influences, the results are usually mixed. Take Ambrose Akinmusire's rendition of "What's New?" from his record When The Heart Emerges Glistening. It's a beautiful recording, and a highly sensitive reading of the song, but it's so focused on Clifford Brown and honoring that influence that the song doesn't fit with the rest of Akinmusire's highly personal record. Clifford Brown distracted Ambrose from himself.

Nothing of the sort happens here. Instead of working backwards - "I've been influenced by Monk, so I'll go back to Monk's sound and make a record about that" - Marsalis has moved forward with Plays Monk, saying "If I've been influenced by Monk, why not make a record that showcases that influence, rather than its source?"

The best example of this on the record is undoubtedly "In Walked Monk." If there's anything trickier than recording Monk's own material in the spirit of tribute, it must be writing an original in the style of Monk in the spirit of tribute. I've heard tunes like this that I've had to turn off they were so amateurish and obvious. But "In Walked Monk" is subtle, more subtle than we like to give Marsalis credit for in his music. It is most definitely a Wynton Marsalis composition. Yes, it uses the syntaxes of Monk's writing, and the tone, and references his music strongly. But its substance has more in common with original tunes from Live At The Village Vanguard - "The Arrival," or "Swing Down Swing Town" - than it does any specific Monk tune.

The key is in the titles. Marsalis Plays Monk is a far cry from Peter Bernstein's Monk - Thelonious already laid claim to the latter, and Marsalis doesn't venture into that territory, but rather admits his distance from his influence. "In Walked Monk," Marsalis says to us, and then describes the scene - the Monkian sounds of the tune are his descriptions of the pianist, and then the melody is his own reaction; the solos and support from the band make up their reactions. Far from trying to inhabit Monk's mind, Marsalis gives us his own.

Besides this virtual crate-digging for Nextbop, John Weatherman (@TheHeadIn) is currently chronicling all 51 of his first jazz record at his blog, The Head In. He lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.