Wynton Marsalis began to redefine and redeem his career with last year's album, "The Majesty of the Blues," which connected his commanding jazz technique to the humor, sensuality and passion of the blues. That process continued Thursday night at Wolf Trap when the trumpeter opened his show with an ambitious new piece, "Blue Interlude," a 30-minute suite that purported to trace the rise, fall and rise again of a romantic relationship between a fictional couple named Sugar Cane and Sweetie Pie. Though the suite didn't really work as a narrative, it was overflowing with richly melodic themes -- some suggesting sexual chemistry via Jelly Roll Morton's Dixieland motifs and others suggesting romantic intimacy through Duke Ellington's elegant swing.
Marsalis's septet didn't quite have full command of the suite yet -- the harmonies weren't fully exploited and the transitions weren't always finessed -- but the suite's abundant musical invention indicated the makings of a major work. The band showed more confidence on "The Majesty of the Blues," which featured subtle cowbell, tom-tom and rim-shot combinations by Herlin Riley and exciting plunger work by Marsalis and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon. Marsalis excused the other three horns so he could concentrate on his tender, breathy reading of the George Gershwin ballad "Embraceable You."
For the encore version of "Paul Barbarin's Second Line," Marsalis invited to the stage "my homeboys, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, to play some New Orleans second line." The 15 musicians did just that, stomping out the parade standard with loose, joyful abandon. In the opening set the Dozen suffered from a poor sound mix (which buried the band's crucial sousaphone-and-bass-drum beat) and the sedentary setting. Still the innovative octet made the segue from Thelonious Monk's "Blue Monk" to T-Bone Walker's "Stormy Monday" seem perfectly logical and natural.