As Wynton Marsalis no doubt knows, nothing is potentially more dangerous in the arts than early critical acclaim. Last year the young trumpeter skyrocketed from the ranks of promising newcomers to become the recipient of several prestigious jazz awards. Now he's faced with the challenge of living up to those honors and the ensuing publicity.
In his quiet yet confident manner, Marsalis is doing just that at Blues Alley this week, where he and his excellent quintet will be performing through Sunday. It's rare to find a musician beginning a new engagement with the sort of fire and passion Marsalis displayed last night. Without so much as a wasted breath, he and his brother, saxophonist Branford, opened on a torrid note, unleashing a fiercely paced original composition that was as exhausting as it was exciting. Not only did the piece immediately reveal the brothers' formidable technique and compatibility, but it also showcased the often incendiary components of their rhythm section: Jeff Watts' propulsive drumming, Phil Bowler's emphatic bass lines and Kenny Kirkland's bold yet melodic sense of construction.
More impressive, though, were those moments when the Marsalises captured precisely the right inflection, phrase or nuance. They did this during the course of several shifting, multifaceted arrangements, including a muted and occasionally playful treatment of "I've Never Been in Love Before" and the richly melancholic "Sister Cheryl." Steeped in tradition but not confined by it, these were heartening sounds for jazz fans old and young.