Wynton Marsalis says the period when he was playing the Vanguard, a legendary Manhattan nightspot, was the best time he has ever had in his life.
That is part of the explanation Marsalis gives in the liner notes to his new seven-CD box set, "Live at Village Vanguard" (Columbia), for the release of an exhaustive (and exhausting) anthology of performances recorded at the club in the early to mid-1990s.
But whether you end up sharing the trumpeter's unwavering enthusiasm for this music will depend in part on pure stamina. The compilation, after all, contains nearly 50 performances, with each disc representing a different night and mood at the club. Every evening Marsalis begins by welcoming the audience to the show, a courtesy that doesn't bear repeating, and he closes each set by introducing his bandmates--a shifting roster of musicians who include reedmen Todd Williams, Victor Goines and Wessell Anderson, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, pianists Marcus Roberts and Eric Reed, bassists Reginald Veal and Ben Wolfe, and drummer Herlin Riley.
Recorded over a period of four years, the tracks were taken out of sequence and stitched together to create a thematic slant for each night of the week. Disc one, Monday night, opens with the trumpeter's bravura performance of "Cherokee" before settling into a series of ballads and blues, largely distinguished by tunes composed by Anderson ("The Egyptian Blues"), Gordon ("And the Band Played On" and "The Cat in the Hat Is Back.") The septet's affinity for old-fashioned New Orleans polyphony is particularly evident and rewarding on Gordon's colorful contribution.
Tuesday night's performances radiate a freewheeling spirit, embracing elemental chants, unhinged harmonies and infectious New Orleans grooves propelled by Riley. The next three discs, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday night, are also charged with Crescent City exuberance, especially when Marsalis pays tribute to his forebears, King Oliver and Buddy Bolden, during the first and last of these three sets. One of the real treats of the anthology, though, is hearing the septet reprise a wonderful Wednesday night selection of tunes by Count Basie ("Way Back Blues"), Duke Ellington ("Rubber Bottom" and "Play the Blues and Go") and Billy Strayhorn ("Midnight in Paris").
The last two discs, Saturday and Sunday, contain two of Marsalis's most ambitious works, the extended form compositions "Citi Movement" and "In the Sweet Embrace of Life." Nearly an hour long, the latter tune fully warrants its length by virtue of a series of spiritually and emotionally stirring passages. "Altar Call," another Marsalis composition appearing on the last disc, is also enhanced by some of the trumpeter's most evocative and graceful writing.
Of course, only Marsalis die-hards are apt to find all of this music indispensable. Some of the pop standards are rendered in agreeable fashion, nothing more, and a few of the Thelonious Monk tunes similarly lack distinction. Yet in attempting to document the joy he encountered while working with these gifted musicians, Marsalis has shed abundant light on their talents as well as his own.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8181.)
CAPTION: Wynton Marsalis's seven-CD box set rings with a New Orleans sound.
CAPTION: "Live at Village Vanguard" is for the most devoted Wynton Marsalis fans.