JAZZ DIARY / Is he too slick for his own good?: Phil Johnson quizzes trumpeter Wynton Marsalis about the conflict between technique and spontaneity

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The American trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who completed a short British tour last week, has a reputation for dividing jazz fans into rival factions. For some, the 31-year-old is the pre-eminent jazz musician of his generation, playing with a mastery that no other contemporary artist can equal; for others, he's simply too slick for his own good, the dazzling technique concealing a dry, academic approach that is the antithesis of true spontaneity.

The late Miles Davis took the latter view. When the young Marsalis came on stage one night and asked to sit in, Miles allegedly told him to come back tomorrow, the point being that by then Davis would be somewhere else.

The argument about Marsalis is representative of a wider critical debate in jazz about technique versus expression that recalls the theory of the Spanish poet Lorca. According to Lorca, even the most technically assured performer can fail to achieve real expression because their art lacks the duende, that essential fire of creativity, while others who lack, or have lost, technical excellence, can still make the listener's blood tingle. His ideas have a persuasive relevance to jazz: Chet Baker or the later Billie Holiday, say, had the duende in spades even though their technique is in shreds, while college-educated virtuosos like Marsalis may stop short of emotional communication, despite their undoubted skills.

For Marsalis, Lorca's argument fails: 'You can't have expression without technique. It's not a coincidence that the greatest musicians have the greatest technique; even if they're folk musicians, they possess great technique for expressing the most difficult things in their idiom. That argument is part of that whole reaction against sophistication which is a tragic part of contemporary life.

'But technique is intimidating. Bach is the greatest example; people said his music was dry and pedantic. Charlie Parker was that way too; the older musicians said his music wasn't soulful because he didn't play with a wide vibrato. But in the long run it all washes out.'

Marsalis, who is a noted classical trumpeter as well as a jazz musician, has also been criticised for the conservatism of his approach. Rather than going boldly where no man has gone before, he has rejected modernism and continued to rewind further into the past, reclaiming historical styles like the New Orleans tradition or the Ellingtonian jazz of the Thirties for the contemporary repertoire.

'All jazz is modern,' he says. 'There's no way it can be dead because we're playing it. We draw on everything from the history of jazz. The earliest forms of jazz are still very modern.

'Also, what happened in 1945 with bebop can only happen once. In the critical community they think that there'll be another thing like bebop, but it will never happen. The next development is going to be completely different and it may even be the opposite of what went before. I don't think that something new needs to be added to jazz; you just have to have something good, there'll always be something new.'

'Resolution to Swing', a new compilation album from Marsalis's 13-year career with Columbia Records, is released on 14 June, CD and cassette only.

For the vocalist Jimmy Scott, the duende is all. At 70, and on the latest of a long series of comebacks, the ex-Lionel Hampton Band singer may be vocally challenged but he still manages to interpret classic ballads better than almost anyone I've heard. A doll-like man in a baggy tuxedo, whose arms flail the air with extravagant gestures as he sings, Scott's voice is almost shot to hell but his timing and the expression he brings to old lyrics like 'All of Me' are suitably spine-chilling. Appearing at last month's St Lucia Jazz festival in the Caribbean, Scott was the surprise hit of the event.

Even more surprisingly, all the points of comparision for his style are female, like Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington or Ruth Brown. His latest album, All of Me (on the WEA subsidiary Blue Horizon), is only available here on import, but if it is anything like his live performance it has to be heard.

The rest of the festival was excellent too, although the exigencies of programming jazz as a bait for low-season tourists led to some interesting anomalies, like Herbie Hancock playing from a stage in the middle of a hotel swimming pool. Veteran British saxophonist Andy Hamilton, returning to the Caribbean for the first time since 1948, was another big hit and he was quite overcome by the warmth of his reception.

Persuaded to stay for another night and play a final post-festival concert, Hamilton performed 'Silvershine', the tune he wrote for his ex-employer Errol Flynn on a Caribbean cruise in the star's yacht nearly 60 years ago.

The saxophonist Andy Sheppard, who appears at London's Ronnie Scott's Club until Saturday with his new band Big Co-Motion, has taken his new responsibilities as a father so seriously that he has composed a suite of music based on his daughter's birth. The Delivery Suite was commissioned by South West Arts and the music, performed at last Sunday's closing concert of the Bath Festival, starts appropriately with some freely improvised gurgling and squawks from saxophone and trombone before developing a complex life.

Sheppard says of fatherhood: 'It's stopped me going out and getting drunk for a start. I just want to be at home all the time now. The frustrating thing about success in music is that when you're young and up for staying up all night and playing with anyone, you can't get the gigs. When you eventually can get them, you don't fancy the heavy travel.' Sheppard has left Island's Antilles label and signed for EMI's Blue Note for whom his now album will be released in the autumn.

Ronnie Scott's, W1 (071-439 0747).

A new concert series has been announced for Islington's Union Chapel, promoted by World Wave Productions. American trumpeter Freddie Hubbard plays there on Sunday 13 June with a quintet including Louis Hayes on drums. On 4 July David Murray plays with Fred Hopkins, bass, and Andrew Cyrille, drums, and the Jackie McClean Sextet appears on 12 July.

Further details: 071-916 2200.

(Photograph omitted)