Every artist knows the pressure to "shut up and sing." But with the injustices of our nation made evident in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and in the midst of a disastrous war waged on false pretenses, musician Wynton Marsalis has joined the chorus of artists crying "wake up" to America. His latest album, From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, is a response to congregants who have called out from the pew, "Make it plain, preacher."
Marsalis' efforts to "make it plain" begin with the fact that, unlike most of his previously published compositions, these songs have words, and lots of them—fiery words, many of them more likely to be heard on the street than in a church. But this isn't the foul-mouthed rhetoric of commercial hip-hop. It's a combination of righteous anger, mournful lament, and romantic invitation evoking the language of biblical prophets and psalmists who availed themselves of the complete scope of human emotions. It's an honesty that the black church required for survival and a prophetic and pastoral power that the rest of American churches have yet to grasp. Marsalis' lyrics in "Love and Broken Hearts" call to us, "Oh how did we lose our song? When did we forget our dance?"
Marsalis also "makes it plain" with more accessible music in the album's seven compositions. The opening smack of the tambourine and the ensuing groove of the title track conjure the calloused hands and hard labors of generations of America's African descendants. Joining the cries of Marsalis' trumpet and Walter Blanding's soprano saxophone is the voice of vocalist Jennifer Sanon, her unwavering, sustained syllables wedging between her counterparts almost like an alto sax.
"Doin' Our Thing" begins with a playful music box of Dan Nimmer's piano, Carlos Henriquez' fancy bass work, and Ali Jackson's two-beat click-clack marching through the first section of the song. Everybody gets a chance to do their thing during the song, while the accompanying rhythms and instruments adapt. It made me wish there was an interactive section where I could do my thing and they would adapt to me. If technologically feasible, it wouldn't be out of character for Marsalis.
Gifted and called as an educator, Marsalis has always invited new jazz listeners and performers into a musical apprenticeship. At the top layer of this album, he's chosen a diverse cast of award-winning young artists who have launched themselves into the upper atmosphere of the jazz cosmos. For the jazz layperson, the album cover prominently labels the native rhythm and time signature of each piece—"6/8 Naningo, 2-Beat Country Groove, Soca, Cumbia, Cha-Cha, Motown vamp." Marsalis leaves it to us to Google those we don't recognize. He also offers a free online video on Amazon, explaining how his philosophies intersect with the music he created on this album.
Fans will recognize the familiar Marsalis sound—tight, intricate, and contrapuntal rhythms and arrangements that echo the New Orleans roots of both Marsalis and jazz itself. Jazz thrives on the collaboration between distinct personalities and identities, one of the few distinctly American structures where the promotion of individuality and a common good are mutually beneficial. In a medium often obscured by over-intellectualization, Marsalis reaches beyond the jazz-fanatic microcosm to remind all listeners that black history is every American's history—that the DNA of slavery still writhes in each of us and in our social and political systems. He also offers us a slightly more cryptic solution—that the essence of good jazz is also the essence of good society.
But in case the esoteric elements of jazz are out of your range of hearing, you still won't have trouble hearing Marsalis' altar call on the last track, "Where Y'all At?" "All you '60s radicals and world beaters /Righteous revolutionaries and Camus readers /Liberal students and equal rights pleaders /What's goin' on now that y'all are the leaders, /Where y'all at?"
Brian Bolton is network administrator at Sojourners/Call to Renewal.