Mention the name Wynton Marsalis in some jazz circles and people will look at you as if you had just ripped a particularly loud fart. Due to his rather outspoken opinions on the validity of more traditional jazz styles over newer ones, he has been viewed alternately as a savior and a fossil. This was only exacerbated by his ubiquitousness throughout Ken Burns’ controversial Jazz miniseries. Given this, it may not be possible for some to objectively approach his work – including his newest release, From the Plantation to the Penitentiary.
Luckily for me, I never really paid attention to any of that controversy. However, I honestly never paid any attention to his music either. I decided to give this album a shot after seeing Marsalis’s recent appearance on The Daily Show. And I have to say I’m glad I did. I don’t know if ths is typical of his other jazz work, but I will definitely be checking out some of his other stuff now.
The album opens with the 11-plus minute title track, and immediately put me in mind of Charles Mingus. There’s a forcefulness and tension in the song that really appealed to me. Like Mingus, Marsalis give his bandmates – pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Carlos Henriquez, drummer Ali Jackson, Jr., and saxophonist Walter Blanding – ample opportunity to shine. Young vocalist Jennifer Sanon is used sparingly but effectively here, adding to the overall dissonant mood of things. She sings (or rather laments) the apparent lack of progress made by African-Americans since the time of slavery. These socially and politically charged lyrics set the tenor for most of the album.
The second track, “Find Me,” is even more lyrically blunt, with lines like “I see starving people screaming/crushed as we rush on our way to say ‘can you see’/Can you see me?” While the words “New Orleans” or “Hurricane Katrina” are never mentioned outright, I can’t help but think that this song was inspired by the aftermath of that. Unfortunately, it’s here where Sanon’s weakness as a singer is more apparent – she seems to lack the forcefulness and authority necessary to deliver lyrics like these. She is simply too refined here, although that may be how she was directed to sing. Thankfully the musicianship here is first-rate, so the impact is still strong.
“Doin’ (Y)Our Thing” is the album’s lone instrumental, and is a wonderful showcase for the group as soloists. Blanding delivers a lilting upper-register solo, and is followed by Marsalis’s assured trumpet playing. Nimmer rounds things out with an effective and tasteful solo, and is rejoined by Marsalis and Blanding to finish out this really nice example of late ’50s/early ’60s-inspired hard bop.
Sanon returns for “Love and Broken Hearts,” and hits her stride on this interesting ballad. The lovely arrangement is countered by some fiercely independent and progressive-minded lyrics such as “I ain’t your bitch/I ain’t your ho.” Despite the jarring effect of the opening lyrics, the chorus reveals a more sentimental (albeit doleful) attitude concerning the loss of romance. The following track, “Supercapitalism,” juxtaposes frenetic and tranquil passages quite well but would probably work better without vocals – not because Sanon doesn’t sing well here (although she is ineffective), but rather because Marsalis’s lyrics are a little too obvious. Fortunately the vocal passages are limited.
“These Are Those Soulful Days,” a lovely and serene ballad, would have made a nice album closer. That spot, however, goes to “Where Y’All At,” where Marsalis himself takes a vocal turn. The song is one part rap, one part beat, one part spiritual. It’s a direct attack on just about everyone who has let African Americans down – former civil rights activitsts, rappers, and politicians. It’s a fascinating track, but I wonder if it will hold up under repeated listenings. Even if it doesn’t, the rest of From the Plantation to the Penitentiary likely will. Marsalis manages to keep one foot firmly in the past, while still staying focused on the present and future.