...the best of Wynton Marsalis is not the music he plays, it's the work he's doing to...
Kathryn Shackleton 2002
Even if Wynton Marsalis sat with his feet up watching 'EastEnders' for the rest of his life, he'd still have accomplished twice as much as most hard-working megastars. He's on a tireless crusade to educate the world about jazz, and besides being a technically brilliant jazz and classical trumpet player, he's co-founder and Artistic Director of Jazz At Lincoln Center, he was the talking head on Ken Burns' epic and controversial series Jazz, he's composer of a Pulitzer prize-winning oratorio on slavery, he's a UN Messenger of Peace and an honorary musketeer !
For his 40th birthday, Sony has released Popular Songs - The Best of Wynton Marsalis - featuring Wynton's own favourite post-Jazz Messengers tracks. Naturally, the Marsalis family name is sprinkled liberally through the credits; Branford on sax, Delfeayo producing and Dad Ellis on piano.
The earliest recording on the album is Wynton's "Black Codes", from one of an astonishingly accomplished series of albums with his first quintet. After the quintet split, Marsalis went back to jazz's roots, studying blues and gospel. His technical skill means that even on a super-fast standard like "Cherokee", he gets a laid-back and bluesy sound.
Wynton's split musical personality eventually led him to merge string orchestra and jazz quartet. In "I Got Lost" his trumpet weaves through tangoing strings, but he plays the whole piece muted. In fact, that's the down side of Marsalis; he labours the point. "Root Groove", arranged for big band, overdoes the wah-wah mute effects, but Marsalis' mastery of the trumpet is put to great use in the high-pitched, closely-scripted 5/4 piece "Sunflowers" (honouring the people of Marciac, France, whose jazz festival he patronises).
Popular Songs does a fair job of charting Wynton's career as a jazz musician, but the best of Wynton Marsalis is not the music he plays, it's the work he's doing to get jazz recognised as the classical music of America. The prizes and honorary musketeerships attest to that.