LIVE AT THE HOUSE OF TRIBES
Wynton Marsalis keeps so busy off the bandstand as the leading spokesman for jazz and as the all-purpose punching bag for anyone with a gripe about the state of the music that we tend to overlook the thing that got him to his eminent position in the first place: He is one of the great trumpet players of our time.
His current release, recorded three years ago at a tiny club in New York, documents a new level of mid-career mastery. In this program of standards and classic jazz numbers, Marsalis exposes more of his musical personality than ever before.
If you ever doubted his pure chops, listen to the way he flies through the scales of Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee" and sends flames shooting up Thelonious Monk's "Green Chimneys." With a relaxed yet fiery attack, he builds "What Is This Thing Called Love?" from a moderately paced ballad to a full-swing-ahead locomotive. On "You Don't Know What Love Is," he reaches a place so deep and personal that you can practically hear the beat of his heart.
Backed by pianist Eric Lewis, bassist Kengo Nakamura and the exciting drumming of Joe Farnsworth, Marsalis has a terrific rhythmic engine to work with. The disc grows more satisfying with repeated listenings, except that alto saxophonist Wessell Anderson is sometimes badly out of tune.
But Marsalis plays with such fluency, strength and character that "Live at the House of Tribes" may be his finest, most complete work of pure trumpet playing to date.
-- Matt Schudel
DRINKIN' SONGS AND OTHER LOGIC
Maybe it was a bout of political correctness or just a stab at healthy living, but country music's tradition of drinking songs seemed to take a back seat in recent years to sultry sirens and good, clean fun. Now, though, the bottle is back with a vengeance, part and parcel of the hard-partying redneck aesthetic that has taken over the genre.
And veteran singer Clint Black isn't ready to cede the old habits to the younger generation, offering an album dominated by songs about having a taste or two. With his ready smile, friendly nature (the black hat is a fashion statement, not a mood indicator) and a Hollywood/Nashville marriage that actually works, though, Black seems somewhat ill-suited for the task. One would imagine Black's idea of hard drinking would be selecting whole milk over skim.
Yet here he is, singing about drinking for its own sake ("A Big One"), drinking to forget (the title track) and drinking to fend off, or ignore, his own mortality ("Heartaches"). Lyrically, this isn't the most impressive work by Black, who wrote or co-wrote all of the songs: "Heartaches" labors various medical metaphors to death, while "Undercover Cowboy" artlessly follows the escapades of a boot-scootin' Lothario trying "to get under the cover with you."
There's a melancholic flavor to "Go It Alone" and "Back Home in Heaven," a pair of sad goodbyes to friends who have passed on. Neither is about imbibing, but both could likely drive you to drink, which, after all, may be the point.
-- Daniel Durchholz