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NEW RELEASES : Eclectic 'Blues' From Wynton Marsalis

August 25, 1991|LEONARD FEATHER

**** WYNTON MARSALIS "Soul Gestures in Southern Blue" Columbia .

In the introduction to the incredibly prolix liner notes by Stanley Crouch, this three-CD set is called a "blues cycle." A better description: a richly rewarding series of compositions, all but three by Marsalis, notable for the evocative, suspensefully moody character of the music rather than any strong blues essence. Except for a few tracks, he concentrates on harmonic ventures that are alien to the realm of the blues.

Marsalis recorded these three discs--"Thick in the South," "Uptown Ruler" and "Levee Low Moan"--in 1987-88 (the delayed release is unexplained). He exercises firm control over the general tone of the collection and seemingly over the improvisational approach of his soloists, notably pianist Marcus Roberts and tenor saxophonist Todd Williams.

It's been said that in recent years, Marsalis has been looking back from his early Miles Davis image to swing and traditional directions, in the process bypassing be-bop. At the time these three discs were recorded, Marsalis had yet to make that stylistic change.

Both as composer and trumpeter, Marsalis is at a contemporary peak here. He's very eclectic, using diverse meters (3/4, 5/4, 7/4) and modes. He even borrows from a Beethoven string quartet theme. He dips into 12-tone usage on one piece and builds another on a basic chord that moves through 12 keys.

Marsalis worked with unprecedented detail in conceiving and organizing this project. Examples: the subtle textures of "Harriet Tubman," the gliding in and out of quasi-blues structures on "Elveen"--one of two numbers in which Elvin Jones plays drums--and the much-needed contrasts of the cheerful "Down Home With Homey," one of the few fast-tempo compositions.

As a trumpeter, Marsalis has learned what to do with his singular gifts. Instead of velocity we often hear the virtues of simplicity. Sensuality and sensitivity dominate where technical sensationalism once sometimes intruded.

In assessing "Soul Gestures in Southern Blue," one would be wiser to ignore the "blues cycle" premise and accept these discs on other merits, such as the compositional statements and improvisational forays that epitomize the creative sophistication of the past decade.

\o7 Albums are rated on a scale of one \f7 asterisk\o7 (poor) to five (a classic).\f7

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