All right, this is a bit of an odd kind of a PopCulteer post, but I have to come clean with you.
I’ve been working (some would say too hard) to restore the older posts in this blog now that we have moved our archives to this new location out from under the GazetteMail auspices. As such, I’ve been scouring the old and musty, dusty hard drives that live in the remote corners of my desk looking for bits of pieces of PopCult that might have fallen by the wayside over the decade and a half that I’ve been cranking this thing out.
Last night I found a piece that I was very proud of at the time, but it was not written for PopCult. You see, in addition to writing PopCult for The Gazz back in the mid-oughts, I was also a contributor to the NewSounds blog at TheGazz.com, which was where all my non-local music reviews were posted. As with most of the other Gazzblogs, NewSounds was left unfed for weeks and months, until one day somebody looked in the bowl and realized it was floating on its back.
The plug was pulled with no warning, and suddenly several record reviews that I wrote, which could have been easily moved over to this blog, went down the drain. I had several hard drive crashes, and a lot of my personal archives from that era are missing in action. So reviews, which I was really happy with, for artists like The Aquabats, Lene Lovich, Roger Waters and others, were gone. Many of them wound up in print, and I do have those around here somewhere, but I have a large house full of stuff and wouldn’t know where to begin to look.
But one of my favorite reviews, which took up the whole back page of The Gazz when it saw print back in May, 2007 was for a Winton Marsalis Quintet album, and I’m going to post it right here, because I managed to find the raw copy that I sent in for the print version (plus it means I don’t have to write a whole column this week).
Please note that this was written almost fourteen years ago, when Bill Cosby was viewed as a respected elder in the Black community, and was not yet a convicted rapist. Sometimes when you look at your old work there are parts that make you cringe, but it’d be dishonest to edit that out.
Obviously race is still a major issue in this country. It doesn’t seem like things have improved much, and a strong case can be made that the rise of the far-right and the takeover of the GOP by Trump and his merry band of racists have made them much worse. At this point, as an old White guy, I feel my job when it comes to race relations is to shut up and listen. Even back when this was written, I was mainly trying to get folks to listen to what Marsalis was saying.
The Artist: Wynton Marsalis
The CD: “From The Plantation To The Penitentiary”
The latest album by Wynton Marsalis, “From The Plantation To The Penitentiary,” is an impressive statement about the state of this country and the way race plays into it, told from Marsalis’ unique perspective. This is the declaration, by an American who just happens to be Black, that our culture is in serious need of repair. He doesn’t just take the easy route and blame the Republicans for keeping down Black people. There are parts of this CD that sound like Bill Cosby’s strong words set to music. Everyone comes in for their fair share of the blame, conservatives, liberals, Blacks, and he doesn’t shy away from addressing the institutional forces at work.
Lyrically, this is a focused, thought-provoking work. The seven songs all make an impact. Musically, it swings and grooves pretty darned well, too. This is not a pop album, though. It’s Jazz, and if you’re not accustomed to jazz you might find it a bit jarring. It’s more musically challenging for the listener. It’s sort of like when somebody who’s used to drinking Coca Cola or Pepsi gets a taste of a real soft drink like Boylan’s or Moxie. It’s a shock to the system, but well worth broadening one’s taste.
On this album Marsalis has discovered an amazing vocalist, 21-year-old Jennifer Sanon, a winner of the Essentially Ellington high school competition, who breathes life into the lyrics with the soul of Lena Horne and the clarity of Keely Smith. The band is rounded out by Walter Blanding on tenor and soprano sax, Dan Nimmer on piano, Carlos Henriquez on bass, and Al Jackson Jr. on drums.
This crew functions as a tight unit, as though they’ve been together for years (they haven’t). The album opens with the longest, and weakest cut, “From The Plantation To The Penitentiary.” This isn’t a bad tune, but at eleven and a half minutes, and with a melody that’s not terribly pretty, it’s not really indicative of the rest of the album. The playing is wonderful, but it’s the only song on the CD that isn’t a real winner. The subject matter is important, and the message pertinent but perhaps it overwhelmed the tune.
After that, however, we discover how incredible Jennifer Sanon really is. On the song “Find Me,” listed as “a modern habanera” in the liner notes, her vocals redefine what female jazz singers are in the modern era. Musically the tune runs the gamut from soft jazz to samba to bebop.
The next song, a ballad called “Love And Broken Hearts” is a torch song-styled repudiation of the worst elements afflicting Black culture, starting out with lyrics strong enough to make Don Imus blush, before settling into a beautiful plea for a return to the classy romance of long-ago eras asking “How did we lose our song? When did we forget our dance?” Sanon is again remarkable, but the entire band shines on this tune, which could become a new standard, if not for the shocking opening lyrics.
“Supercapitalism” is a novelty speed-jazz critique of a materially-obsessed populace. The message is clear, and strong. This also has the trumpet solo that Marsalis’ fans will be lusting after.
The standout track, and most impressive vocal on the album comes with the last cut, “Where Y’All At?” The shock is that this song is not sung by Sanon, but by Marsalis himself. And it’s not really sung. His delivery is sort of a cross between a beat poet and a Southern minister. It’s an amazing performance and a searing indictment of all the Black activists from the last forty years who abdicated their responsibilities and let their people down.
In its own way, it’s an updated version of Grandmaster Flash’s classic rap “The Message.” This is a sermon set to music, and nobody escapes Marsalis’ wrath. “All you patriots, compatriots, and true blue believers, brilliant thinkers, over-achievers, all you ‘when I was young I was so naive-ers’ y’all started like Eldridge and now you’re like Beaver.”
This tune is striking, with pristine lyrics and a strong hook that draws you right in. This is not an album that spends all its time bashing people. The underlying theme is hope for the future and faith in what America can be.
As part of the racial dialogue in the country, this is a worthy opening salvo. With any luck it will succeed in breaking down some of the barriers.
Back to today: You have to admit, it was a nice thought. We still have a lot of work to do.
From The Plantation To The Penitentiary can be ordered on CD from Amazon, and is available from all major streaming services. Aside from the still-relevant message, the music is spectacular.
And that’s this week’s PopCulteer. Thanks for indulging my look back at my review of a powerful musical work. Check back for fresh content every day, and all of our regular features.