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October 5, 1999

Modern ComposersWynton Marsalis. At The Octoroon Balls: String Quartet No. 1, performed by The Orion String Quartet; A Fiddler's Tale Suite, performed by musicians from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, with Wynton Marsalis, trumpet. (Sony Classical, CD # 60979) 1999.

Sweet Release & Ghost Story: Two More Ballets by Wynton Marsalis. Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Wynton Marsalis, trumpet and conductor. (Sony Classical, CD # 61690) 1999.

Wynton Marsalis keeps slipping out of the pigeon-holes people put him in. When the writers first noticed Marsalis they dubbed him The New Louis Armstrong; after he showed his ability to perform classical music and compose for jazz groups he became The New Duke Ellington. With these new albums from Sony Classical, Marsalis establishes himself in a category of one -- not the New Anybody, but the same old amazingly talented and versatile Wynton Marsalis.

At The Octoroon Balls from 1995 and Sweet Release from 1996 were commissioned by Jazz at Lincoln Center and had their premiere performances by that group. Sweet Release was written for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and Marsalis writes that the piece "moves on the outline that [Alvin Ailey artistic director] Judith Jamison gave me for the piece, which was the development of a relationship between a man and a woman." That's not exactly an original theme, but Marsalis paints a musical picture of a relation that is as vivid as that of Porgy and Bess, set simultaneously on the streets of New Orleans and in the Garden of Eden. Though his handling of them is fresh, the palette that Marsalis uses to paint this picture is mostly what those who know his work would expect. His String Quartet No. 1 "At The Octoroon Balls," however, reveals an entirely new side of Marsalis' composing talent.

At The Octoroon Balls is the first piece Marsalis has written that does not include his own trumpet playing, but it is not simply the work of a jazz musician who feels he needs to prove he can write a conventional string quartet -- conventional it ain't. The title refers to the old New Orleans institution at which "Creole men chose Octoroon women for their mistresses," but also connotes hybridity, which in music is sometimes referred to as crossover. This music ain't crossover, either. Marsalis has written a composition for a classical set of string voices but using quintessentially American vernacular materials -- "a string quartet saturated in the blues," as one critic described it, with elements of ragtime, gospel, and modern jazz. The work is written in seven movements, the titles of which give a flavor of the piece: "Come Long Fiddler," "Creole Contradanzas," "Rampart Street Rowhouse Rag." The fifth movement, "Hellbound Highball," is a "furious scherzo based on the diabolical propulsion of trains...." But trying to identify sources of bits and pieces of this work misses the point. Establishing a provenance of a musical image or theme is easier work than listening to comprehend a whole piece, but asking where a work of art comes from is inconsequential compared to discovering what the work is. This string quartet has a rich and varied pedigree, but its worth comes from its identity as a hugely imaginative work by one of the most talented contemporary American composers. It is too narrow a view to try to hear the piece as a pastiche of familiar forms; it is an integral and richly rewarding work strictly on its own terms.

You can hear At The Octoroon Balls: String Quartet No. 1 by Wynton Marsalis on WHIL- FM (91.3) Thursday, October 7 at 7:00 PM as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

J. Green

The Harbinger