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TV REVIEW : 'Marsalis' Instructs With Easy Rhythm

October 09, 1995|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Wynton Marsalis as the Leonard Bernstein of the "Young People's Concerts"? It's not an image that springs readily to mind: the outspoken young jazz trumpeter as smoothly articulate television educator.

But, surprise, Marsalis' performance in the opening segment of the four-hour PBS series "Marsalis on Music" has many of the qualities of Bernstein's easy-going, painless presentation of information. Perhaps it isn't that surprising, since Marsalis for years has paralleled his playing and composing activities with workshops, seminars and frequent one-on-ones with urban youngsters.

In the series' initial installment, "Why Toes Tap: Marsalis on Rhythm," he appears with his own large jazz band, the students of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra under the baton of Seiji Ozawa, and an array of colorful graphics and computer animation. Two versions of "The Nutcracker Suite"--the original by Tchaikovsky and a recomposition of the work by Duke Ellington--are used to illustrate and define such essential concepts of rhythm as measures and meter.

Like Bernstein, Marsalis makes extensive use of analogy; a jazz rhythm section, he explains, is like a train, with the drums serving as the engine, the string bass as the wheels and the piano as the train's body. He refers to the heartbeat to describe a fundamental aspect of rhythm, and rambles off a long, non-stop sentence completely without emphasis to demonstrate the importance of accents and rests.

Good stuff, all of it, filled with fascinating, contrasting musical selections from the Tchaikovsky and Ellington "Nutcrackers." And Marsalis, whose persona, for all his relaxed interaction with the audience, has a coolness quite different from Bernstein's emotional heat, nonetheless emerges as an effective television communicator.

The series' only problem is that it attempts to do too much. Having just four hours to work with, Marsalis understandably wanted to pack in the maximum amount of data. But too often an idea, once it is presented, is quickly set aside without further elaboration and without sufficient exposure for the listeners and viewers to digest the material.

It's a mistake that Bernstein, a master of timing, would never have made. Of course, Bernstein had far more programs available to him, and the solution here, obviously, is to give the talented Marsalis the opportunity to expand this series with unrushed, better paced episodes.

Future installments of "Marsalis on Music" include "Listening for Clues" (devoted to structure and form), "Sousa to Satchmo" (describing the early evolution of jazz) and "Tackling the Monster" (a 12-point strategy for study and practice that also features cellist Yo-Yo Ma).

* "Marsalis on Music" airs at 8 tonight and on three consecutive Mondays on KCET-TV Channel 28.

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