A FEW LISTENS to "Hot House Flowers" suggest that Wynton Marsalis is not about to repeat last year's precedent-setting double Grammy win in the jazz and classical categories. It's not that his full-toned trumpet playing isn't as sharp, inventive and impressive as before; it's simply that in wrapping interpretations of a number of classic popular songs under Robert Freedman's overwrought string arrangements, Marsalis has muffled his own razor-sharp instincts and considerable skills.
There are some lovely moments here: the languid, muted trumpet that allows Duke Ellington's "Melancholia" to live up to its name; the deep register dips on "For All We Know," with Marsalis going as low as Maynard Ferguson goes high, for greater visceral impact. Throughout, Marsalis displays a remarkable technique embacing disparate elements of Afro- American music, as well as the sharp inner logic and imagination that fuel his improvisations.
The jazz-with-strings approach has been explored by Clifford Brown, Charlie Parker and Stan Getz, among others, but it's seldom been effective. Freedman's stolid arrangements show why, reducing the music's liquid eloquence by substituting calculated metric variations, clumsy embellishments and even clumsier dissonances for the basic empathy and dialogue provided by Marsalis' own quintet. On "When You Wish Upon a Star," for instance, an uncharacteristic up-tempo charge is deflated by stubborn metric convolutions that may have looked clever on paper but only serve to diffuse the impact.
John Lewis' stately elegy "Django" provides welcome emotional paramaters for Marsalis' intricate and logical lines, his smoothly flowing phrases intercut by staccato stabs. The muted introduction and brushed strings of "Lazy Afternoon" provoke the round, sweet sound Marsalis is so adept at. But these are moments within an album that lacks coherence, its cool romanticism continually stifled by heavy arrangements.
Marsalis' classical chops get a workout on another album now in release -- a series of concertos and sonatas by Purcell, Torelli, Fasch and Molter, performed with the English Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Raymond Leppard. (Marsalis also performs with soprano Edita Gruberova on one Purcell and two Handel songs.) The brightness and agility evident here reinforce Marsalis' reputation in this field as well. And the man is only 23. WYNTON MARSALIS -- "Hot House Flowers" (Columbia FC39530) and "Wynton Marsalis, Edita Gruberova and the English Chamber Orchestra, Raymond Leppard" (CBS Masterworks Digital IM39061); appearing with the quintet at Blues Alley Friday through Monday.