SAN DIEGO — Six months shy of his 30th birthday, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis has already ensured that he won't ever be labeled an underachiever. During a recording career not quite 10 years old, he has released 14 albums as a leader--and that doesn't count his classical or Christmas releases.
Even more notable than his prodigious output, however, has been his growth as an artist. Marsalis, who plays the Bacchanal on Wednesday night and returns to the area April 21 for a Sunday-afternoon show at the John Culbertson Winery in Temecula, is without equal among the trumpeters of his generation for overall mastery of the instrument.
His newer material offers indisputable evidence of his maturing. On "Standard Time Volume II, Intimacy Calling," released last month, Marsalis moves gracefully through standards, including Rodgers and Hart's "Lover," George and Ira Gershwin's "Embraceable You" and Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love?" plus his own "Indelible and Nocturnal," a languid stroll on the muted trumpet he often favors.
Gone are the frenzied but shallow passages from earlier recordings where Marsalis let technique overshadow emotion. He seems to have digested the work of his seminal influences, among them Clifford Brown, Clark Terry, Freddie Hubbard, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro and Louis Armstrong, and is increasingly able to select just the right tool from his loaded musical tool kit.
Marsalis, who has won eight Grammies, acknowledged that his playing has evolved but said his earlier music, beginning with his 1982, self-titled debut, was driven by a desire to grow, not a need to flex his muscles.
"I never felt the need to prove myself," he said. "I felt the need to learn how to play, and I still feel that need. But I mean, who are you proving yourself to? I was very fortunate, because the older musicians always embraced me--Art Blakey, Sweet Edison--they gave me pointers on things I should be working on.
"Now, actually, I'm going back toward my early style. I lay out a lot of different things--complex polyrhythms, group interplay and a much slower style, too. When you're 20 or 21, you have a lot of energy. Like when you make love to a woman, you're just glad to be there. When you get older, you say, 'OK, I'm here, now I have to do something, it means something.' "
Apparently, his music means a lot to a lot of people. The 1984 release "Hot House Flowers" has sold 537,000 copies, phenomenal when you consider that most mainstream players are ecstatic with 50,000 or 60,000. "Standard Time, Volume III," released last year, has already sold 248,000, and "Haydn/Hummel/L. Mozart," his 1983 recording of classical trumpet concertos, has sold 418,000.
Unlike some other musicians in his age group who opt for lighter, pop-oriented music as their take on "jazz," Marsalis has always been devoted to joining the mainstream jazz continuum that began early this century and continued through the music of Armstrong, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and other jazz legends.
For Marsalis, jazz is a far-reaching spiritual and mythological quest.
"It goes back to the conception of art as the reinterpretation of mythology," he said. "Through art, you attempt to reinforce the most positive characteristics--the spiritual majesty of man, the intellectual achievements, deep pathos and tragedy, wit and humor, different types of human melodrama, all the various aspects of being alive in the 20th Century."
Marsalis relies on building strong groups to achieve his purposes. Like some of his predecessors, he knows that the best improvisation is collective, that the finest spontaneous moments can occur among players who know each other well. Like Coltrane, Davis and others, Marsalis puts together groups that endure for years, evolving along with his music.
His first band included brother Branford on saxophones (Branford plays Humphrey's Concerts by the Bay in San Diego on Aug. 25) and Kenny Kirkland on piano. After both went on to musical adventures with Sting and as solo acts in the mid-1980s, Marsalis farmed fresh talent including pianist Marcus Roberts, who also established his own career and moved on.
His band now includes bassist Reginald Veal, drummer Herlin Riley, pianist Eric Reed, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and saxophonists Wes Anderson and Todd Williams.
Marsalis has been producing new music and tackling new projects at his usual breakneck pace.
In June or July, he plans to release a three-CD series titled "The South Suite," followed in the fall by "Live at the Village Vanguard" and a recording of all-new material he and his band are now hashing out on the road.
Last fall, he taped a guest appearance on "Sesame Street," scheduled to air May 9, also featuring him with the Duck Ellington Orchestra.
Though barely started on what promises to be a long, productive career, Marsalis is already passing on his knowledge. He has been consulting with the Lincoln Center in New York City (his home) on the creation of a jazz department. Among the goals: more jazz concerts at the center, creation of a jazz archive in the New York Public Library at the center, education programs for children and adults, and classes and seminars for aspiring musicians.
Marsalis also keeps in touch with high school and college players across the country, often handing out his phone number. He estimates that more than 100 young players call him from time to time seeking fatherly wisdom.
"If they want to ask my advice, I'm not going to deny them," he said.
* Marsalis and his group will play the Bacchanal on Wednesday night at 8:30, and on April 21 will play a 4 p.m. show at the John Culbertson Winery in Temecula.