Jack Johnson was the first 20th century African-American celebrity. The greatest boxer of his era, he lived in the spotlight with no apologies, a fitting subject for Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, a Ken Burns documentary with a Wynton Marsalis soundtrack that premiered on PBS Jan. 17-18.
Marsalis is a genius collaborator with a particular talent for the narrative demands of soundtrack and program music, and he's never better than when he's dealing with New Orleans traditional jazz, a lexicon passed along as a sacred legacy from his father and grandfather. For all his superb technique, Marsalis is emotionally grounded in New Orleans jazz to the point where he conveys something deeper when he plays this music than in some of his more celebrated works.
Johnson's career coincided with the earliest days of jazz and ran through the Jazz Age. On Unforgivable Blackness, Marsalis weaves original jazz and blues pieces together with inventive arrangements of early jazz compositions by W.C. Handy ("Careless Love") and Jelly Roll Morton ("New Orleans Bump," "Deep Creek" and "Buddy Bolden's Blues") to create a seamless soundscape that evokes the century's torrid leap from turn-of-the-century optimism to World War I, the Roaring '20s and the Great Depression.
The soundtrack emphasizes Marsalis as a composer more than a player. He features group members, particularly Victor Goines on clarinet and bass clarinet, Reginald Veal on bass and Victor Lewis on piano, while using his trumpet mostly for ensemble work. The pieces are short -- only four are more than four minutes long -- and present a variety of instrumentations, from solo piano to nonet. He repeats variations on two themes, "Jack Johnson Two-Step" and "Trouble My Soul," as programmatic links.
The shadow of Miles Davis has often crossed Marsalis' path, and here the penumbra appears once more. The 1970 Davis classic, Tribute to Jack Johnson was re-released to coincide with Burns' documentary, but the music could not be more different. This was one of the brashest statements of Davis' controversial career, Miles playing electric trumpet with the cream of the jazz-rock fusioneers -- John McLaughlin on electric guitar, Billy Cobham on drums, Herbie Hancock on electric organ, Michael Henderson on electric bass and Steve Grossman on soprano saxophone.
Davis was Jack Johnson redux, an unapologetic black hero who challenged orthodoxy at every turn. He was a boxing fanatic and he plays like it here, delivering short, shattering notes and working rhythmic combinations that always end in surprise. His music evoked Johnson's spirit as well as Marsalis evoked the era Johnson inhabited. -- John Swenson
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (Shanachie DVD) Branford Marsalis Quartet Coltrane's A Love Supreme Live in Amsterdam (Marsalis DVD + CD)
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, part of Shanachie's "Jazz Masters Series," features Blakey in 1982 playing in the Smithsonian Institution's Baird Auditorium. As a performance, it's a fairly conservative bebop show with the horn players stepping to the mic one by one to perform solos with almost no interaction between them. Remarkably, it doesn't display Blakey particularly well, with him only taking a solo or two.
The show is primarily of interest because it marks Wynton Marsalis' debut as Blakey's trumpet player and musical director. He and brother Branford are two of the three-man horn line -- with Bill Pierce on tenor sax -- but at this point, neither are the players they have become. Wynton's debts to Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon and Dizzy Gillespie are obvious, and Branford, while fluid and melodic, isn't distinguished. It ends with a nice, bop-influenced evocation of New Orleans parade music, but the DVD is primarily of interest for those who want to see Wynton and Branford back when.
John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" clearly fascinates the Marsalises as, in truth, it fascinates almost anyone who loves jazz. They're just in a position to do something about it. In interviews, Branford has talked about an unsatisfying attempt to perform it in 1991, and Wynton's performance of it at the 1996 Jazz Fest was one of the highlights of that year's festival. In 2001, Branford attempted it again more successfully, perhaps prompting the decision to record Coltrane's A Love Supreme Live in Amsterdam in March 2003.
This is not a note-for-note recreation of the album. There are echoes of McCoy Tyner in Joey Calderazzo's piano playing, and Marsalis' lengthy solo in "Pursuance" has long, rippling Coltrane-esque lines, but the melody and rhythm that start "Acknowledgement" are different. More accurately, the performance sounds like Marsalis acknowledging a debt at a point when he and his band can do it without emulating his influence. In the suite, he finds a form that unleashes some of his most fiery yet thoughtful playing, and his band -- Calderazzo, Eric Revis on bass, and Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums -- is intelligently exciting throughout. The package includes a DVD and CD and, frankly, the DVD is the way to experience this performance. The sound is hotter and the physicality of the playing is much more evident. Calderazzo is bouncing off the bench during his solo in "Resolution," driven by Revis and Watts, who are ratcheting up the intensity. On CD, the moment sounds almost ordinary, when it absolutely isn't. -- Alex Rawls