Wynton Marsalis Septet: Live at the Village Vanguard

COMPOSERS: Wynton Marsalis Septet
LABELS: Sony Columbia
PERFORMER: Wynton Marsalis (t), Wessell Anderson (as, sopranino), Todd Williams, Victor Goines (ts, ss, clt), Wycliffe Gordon (tb), Marcus Roberts, Eric Reed (p), Reginald Veal, Ben Wolfe (b), Herlin Riley (d)
CATALOGUE NO: CXK 69776

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The music for this marathon boxed set was drawn from the Septet’s various appearances at the Vanguard over the years 1990-94. The four constant members of the group are Marsalis, Anderson, Gordon and Riley, while the piano, bass and tenor/soprano chairs alternate occasionally.

Marsalis is in peak form throughout, and his magnificent musicians – every man a virtuoso – handle a great variety of music, from blues and ballads to funk, dixieland and bop, with great dash and authority.

A few compositions by members of the septet are included in the programmes, and Marsalis, who is one of the great small-group composer/arrangers, contributes over 20 of his pieces. His arrangements of standards and of Monk, Ellington and Strayhorn compositions make up the rest of the fare.

The first CD opens with Marsalis and the rhythm section playing Ray Noble’s ‘Cherokee’ at breakneck tempo, a number which used to be the testing ground for competitive improvisers because it goes through all 12 keys.

Marsalis sustains a possibly unprecedented, dazzling flow of notes for over five minutes, before concluding his performance in a more measured vein. Having thus proved himself, he plays a much more musical version of ‘Cherokee’ on disc 6, using a harmon mute in Miles Davis mode, and projecting lyrical feeling.

On disc 2, Marsalis’s ‘Uptown Rules’ starts in 5/4 time with African chanting, and his solo encapsulates the history of jazz trumpet with its opening growls, vocalised tones, boppish runs and echoes of Louis Armstrong. Then Eric Reed’s piano solo is full of surprises, rhythmic and otherwise.

Disc 3 includes a tribute to King Oliver, and Marsalis’s hilarious and witty ‘Buggy Ride’ – for Charlie Brown and Snoopy – plus Monk and Ellington pieces. Other highlights are ‘Embraceable You’ on disc 4, with dynamic solos by Marsalis and pianist Marcus Roberts; and a superb 40-minute version of Marsalis’s ‘Citi Movement’ on disc 6, bristling with musical incident and featuring all seven musicians.

Disc 7 has a looser, 55-minute suite, again featuring all seven men, and disc 8 is a brief bonus with just under 26 minutes of music, including two ballads and two Jelly Roll Morton pieces.

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Marsalis’s playing is often awesome in this fascinating album, and his septet’s cohesion and focus are remarkable. He is a consolidator of the jazz tradition and a great communicator. The music speaks for itself and has no need of Stanley Crouch’s ludicrously verbose and hyperbolic booklet notes.