A mere step into his fifth decade and trumpeter, composer and bandleader Wynton Marsalis has already carved a career for the ages. Even the genesis of that career reads like a logline from a film: New Orleans born scion of famous jazz family comes to New York City’s Juilliard School in the early eighties with virtuosic technique and sets both the jazz and classical worlds on their ears. Almost single-handedly makes jazz relevant to the recording industry once more, and as the eighties gives way to the nineties, finds himself lavished with equal measures of praise and criticism as his influence grows, winning nine Grammies and jazz’s only Pulitzer Prize along the way. Then, over the last decade, our once upstart New Orleans trumpeter finds a home at Lincoln Center, becoming the Artistic Director of Jazz At Lincoln Center, music director of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and the heart and soul behind the newly opened multi-million dollar home for jazz, Frederick P. Rose Hall, the world’s foremost space for the performance, archiving, and teaching of jazz music. Now that’s one heck of a narrative arc.
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The problem, however, with great narrative arcs is that they often privilege the all-encompassing tale at the cost of its smaller component parts. In the case of Marsalis, with the sheer weight of his fame, influence, and compelling achievements, it can be easy to gloss over his records themselves; which, ostensibly, are the point of the whole thing. That point receives a nice re-affirmation indeed on Live at the House of Tribes, Marsalis’s third album for Blue Note and a record that, as Marsalis himself puts it, “is just about playing.”
Live at the House of Tribes was recorded at New York City’s House of Tribes on December 15, 2002. The record features 6 covers, from Thelonious Monk’s “Green Chimneys” to Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee.” The format is a bit of a departure for Marsalis. “Most of the records I’ve made have been group records, even when we recorded live,” he says. “We tour the world [and] just play with people we’ve never played with before. The audience loves the music and they just come and swing. I think it was just good to show people playing, not just being conceptual.”
An all-star cast supports Marsalis on the record. Joe Farnsworth’s drumming and Kengo Nakamura bass work drive the rhythm section, along with Marsalis stalwart Eric “Top Professor” Lewis on piano, and Marsalis’s longtime musical companion Wessell “Warmdaddy” Anderson. Anderson brings his outstanding soloing ability and graceful manipulation of the alto sax to complete the quintet. For Marsalis, playing with Lewis and Anderson, men who represent the circle of friends and collaborators who’ve worked with him for many years, brings a deep, contemplative happiness and satisfaction. “Eric wasn’t in the band then,” Marsalis remembers. “We just called him up for that night. But I love him. And Wess, man, they should call him Warmwell, not just Warmdaddy. That brother is a prince.”
And the inclusion of Farnsworth and Nakamura was also keenly significant in its fit and function atop the bandstand that night: “I’d never played with Joe Farnsworth. But I knew he was dedicated to swinging. My thing was to try to play with people who are dedicated to swinging. A lot of musicians can play, but they aren’t dedicated to jazz. I like the diehard swingers. They bring a certain seriousness to the effort. So I was looking forward to playing with Joe. And I know he likes to put a vine on; that already means something to me. He’s a man, whose conclusion is to swing in an era when most rhythm section players sell out as soon as possible. I like to meet guys that I haven’t played with, or even met, who’ve come to a conclusion about the value of playing on their own.
I know Kengo well. We’d always go to Japan and he’d have sake for us. We had a great party at my house once when Kengo was here. Antonio Ciacca, the Italian piano player, was staying with me. We had a Japanese, Italian, and African American party for Kengo’s father who came from Japan to hear us. We both hate to fly. Kengo’s always been like a part of our family. He’s a diehard too. He hustles. Brings a certain feeling in his music. So I’m glad we have something documented for him, especially for his father, who loves swing as well.”
And swing they do. A particular standout is “Green Chimneys,” written by Monk, where the band builds soaring improvisations atop Monk’s modal progressions. The tune showcases swift, almost triumphant soloing from Marsalis and Anderson, with capable backing from the rhythm section. All of it builds toward a climax between Marsalis and Farnsworth, the latter edging the former on with a teasing cymbal and side stick, bringing deep murmurs of appreciation from the crowd. It’s simply the way music should be experienced.
On “Just Friends,” a standard of the American popular song that ranks among Marsalis’s favorites, he trades graceful solos with Anderson, along with Farnsworth and Nakamura, who both exhibit their respective virtuosity. “You Don’t Know What Love Is” is a ballad that manages to be sublime without succumbing to sentimentality. Marsalis carries on a conversation that dips between soft pleading and muscular poignancy. And Eric Lewis, the inimitable “Top Professor,” seconds the appeal with his own smooth piano language.
The albums other tunes include the fast paced, technique demanding be-bop of “Donna Lee”; Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love,” again featuring masterful soloing from Eric Lewis; and the New Orleans party starter “2nd Line,” which may be Marsalis’s favorite. “That’s New Orleans music,” he chuckles fondly. “The people like it. You can play it anywhere. We just played a big jam session in Sao Paulo. Boy we started playing that and the people went crazy. Everybody in the club jumped up.”
Live at the House of Tribes also happens to be an example of exquisite mixing and recording. The intimate whoops, breaths, and uh-hmmms of a listening crowd only accent each tune’s already compelling aura. When, during Farnsworth’s solo in “Just Friends,” the listener hears a chuckling voice break in with, “look like Joe got some soul over there,” and the resultant guffaws from the crowd, one might as well be sitting on the bandstand.
For Marsalis, what the record says about him in 2005, or jazz for that matter, is rooted in matter-of-factness, and a testament to the essential truth that jazz music requires of musicians—playing. “Man, it’s just us getting together and playing. It’s about our playing, and the level that we play on. [You know] we didn’t do this session to be a record. We didn’t know they were recording it. That’s just how we play. [And] I’m happy with this record. I’m happy with all the records. They’re all a part of one thing to me. I don’t put one above the other. Like kids, you know. And I got lots to record.”
The final frame will be a while yet.
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