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JAZZ REVIEW : Marsalis Project Blends Diverse Elements

October 24, 1994|DON HECKMAN

There were times Saturday at the House of Blues when Buckshot LeFonque--Branford Marsalis' jazz-rap-etc. group--looked very much like a '90s version of the Johnny Otis Show. As with Otis, Marsalis has created an open environment for the presentation of a far-ranging mixture of musicians and singers.

Unlike Otis, however, who mostly specialized in the blues, the Marsalis combination brought together elements that don't ordinarily interface with each other: rappers, reggae singers, hip-hop stylists and jazz musicians. Both the material and some of the artists were featured on the recent Buckshot LeFonque album, an effort that has not precisely met with critical bravos.

In live performance, it became clear that Marsalis--who gives careful thought to his musical projects--has more in mind than a pop music review or the formulation of a new kind of jazz-pop synthesis. Like Duke Ellington with "Harlem Air Shaft," Marsalis' goal seems to be the illustration of a cross-cut vision of contemporary life.

Portions of the program, especially those featuring rappers Uptown and the three-man ensemble Blackheart, were in-your-face displays of musical street art. Others, notably a setting of Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," placed poetic imagery in a jazz framework, and vocalist Frank McComb's reading of Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On" added a pop-sociological slant.

Although Marsalis has not yet found a way to make Buckshot LeFonque's music into a transformational rather than a representational experience, there were a surprising number of moments in which the unusual amalgam of energies managed to come together in a common flow. The playing of Marsalis, trumpeter Chuck Findley, trombonist Matt Finders and Joey Calderazzo underscored the remarkable adaptability of jazz, while deejay Apollo and the rhythm section laid down a series of grooves that kept the overflow audience happily in motion.

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