Wynton Marsalis and his Quintet: Informing in order to Transform Century Jazz in the 21st Century

Nélida Nassar 11.15.2019

Celebrity Series of Boston can boast of having scored another big celebrity in its 2019- 2020 programming, namely jazzman Wynton Marsalis, the 58-year old Pulitzer Prize and 5 time-Grammy winner. He and his Quintet gave a great concert yesterday at Symphony Hall, which was filled to capacity. Whether interpreting standards or playing his own compositions, including selections from his five-part “Integrity Suite,” the New Orleans born artist, composer, educator and leading advocate of American culture always knows how to amaze, touch, and impress. 

The esteemed trumpeter, who works tirelessly to ensure that jazz remains a respected American art form in the 21st century, brought more than a touch of New Orleans to Boston. While Marsalis charmed us with the ballads like Benny Goodman’s “Goodbye” (which sounded less sad than it does in many other interpretations) it was the rhythmic pieces that generated the greatest enthusiasm. More conducive to improvisation and solos, they highlighted his fluid playing, marked by an astonishing clarity, intensity, and precision.

The band started off strong with a hard-swinging take on Paul Horn’s “Moscow Blues,” with Marsalis’s trumpet soaring above bluesy bursts from the rest of the brass section. In “Cherokee,” the jazz standard written by Ray Noble, Marsalis and the Quintet mastered the difficulty of improvising on the harmony of the B-section. A new element in this concert was the presence of two “special guests,” young musicians performing with the group for the first time: saxophonist Abdias Armenteros, now in his junior year at Juilliard, and Haitian drummer Obed Calvaire. They belong to a new generation of musicians who are maintaining and advancing jazz’s tradition with a high level of harmony away from an off-trail, urban jazz, integrating fusion, rock, neo-soul, and hip-hop. Separately and in duet, both rode comfortably atop the powerful sound established by the hard-charging piano, trumpet and bass.

“Tom Cat Blues” proved that a genre rooted in improvisation can retain its essential spirit and characteristics when notated. Marsalis used a slower tempo to permit flexibility through the use of more notes, a pinch of Spanish to provide the right seasoning, and the avoidance of playing triple forte continuously.

In Joseph Diamond’s Latin jazz tune “Cuchifrito,” Marsalis sought to explore with the monumentality of the concert hall space by walking among the enthralled audience delivering his crystal clear, aching trumpet tones personally to each member he passed. His tunes offered a mix of moods, from a relaxed optimism to more aggressive states, bursting with energy. It’s clear that he is very much a man from New Orleans – firmly rooted in his own culture yet happily drawing on the best elements of many others.

Throughout the concert the Quintet played seated except for Carlos Henriquez on bass. With playful smacks he led into Marsalis’s five-part “Integrity Suite,” selecting from it “No Surrender,” which recognizes how difficult life can sometimes be. Marsalis often extracted chirping sounds from his trumpet with a plunger mute. The excellent piano solo by Dan Nimmer received warm reception from the audience, and there were rapid exchanges weaving lines between Marsalis, Nimmer, and Armenteros. The rhythm section of Henriquez’s bass, Nimmer’s piano and Armenteros’s saxophone gave the trumpeter a break as the trio dug into a fast-paced “Something about Belief.” The latter then blossomed into a melodic sound as they were joined by the front line Marsalis, along with brushes on drums and hi-hat from Calvaire

“Whenever musicians get together from different cultures there is always the blues somewhere lurking around” asserted Marsalis. The 90 minute-plus performance finished with “Knozz-Moe-King” as the band returned to an all-out New Orleans good-time mode once again. The Quintet came back on  the stage for an encore, Cole Porter’s 1929 composition “What is this Thing Called Love?,” a popular jazz standard whose chord progressions form the basis of several jazz compositions. As expected, the hall reverberated with applause and cheers. Celebrity Series of Boston once more demonstrated the richness of the music it presents and the different audiences it serves.

P.S. Marsalis’s connection with the audience through his music and his generosity toward his fans continued backstage. He was especially attentive to the young musicians, giving each of them time to perform on their instrument. Marsalis’s knowledge of jazz and history is very considerable, as is his sense of civic responsibility. His recognition of the importance of passing on the legacy of jazz from generation to generation imbues everything he does. One must inform if one is going to transform.

Wyndon Marsalis, Trumpeter
Abdias Armenteros, Saxophone
Carlos Henriquez, Bass
Dan Nimmer, Piano
Obey Calvaire, Drums