IN HAILING the year's best, it's polite to wait until all the returns are in. But since Wynton Marsalis and Lester Bowie will be in town tonight performing at the Pension Building (along with other members of the New York Hot Trumpet Rep Co.), why not, just this once, forgo the formalities and state the obvious: Marsalis and Bowie have recorded what doubtless will be regarded in December as two of the year's best jazz albums.
"Wynton Marsalis" (Columbia FC 37574) would be sufficiently enjoyable if it did no more than live up to the glowing reviews this 20-year-old trumpeter routinely received while a member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers; after all, justifying the ink spent comparing Marsalis to Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Woody Shaw and the like is, in itself, no mean accomplishment.
But Marsalis demonstrates much more than the ability to echo influences on his debut album, though there are plenty of moments on the record when that uncanny aspect of his playing is its own reward. Certainly, the muted and Miles-ish "RJ," the hushed Clifford Brown-like lyricism underlying "Who Can I Turn To?" and the staccato bursts that frequently recall Dizzy Gillespie attest to Marsalis' taste and technique.
What's more impressive than Marsalis' remarkable poise is his commitment to straight-ahead uncompromising jazz. The album was produced by Herbie Hancock--also a pop and fusion performer--who along with drummer Tony Williams and bassist Ron Carter are the better of the two excellent rhythm sections on the session.
With three of Miles Davis' ex-sidemen on the album, and with Wynton's brother Branford sounding a lot like Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone, the mood and texture of Davis' late '60s recordings often prevail. But the Marsalises' complementary improvisations on Wynton's own Afro-Cuban waltz "Father Time" or his freer "Twilight" shows a special rapport. It's an intuitive relationship, nurtured by numerous jazz masters, and one which is now bearing fruit away from the stifling heat of commercial pressure.
Lester Bowie's "The Great Pretender" (ECM 1-1209) represents nothing so much as the trumpeter's outrageous and all-encompassing musical vision. In the span of one side, the album moves from the title track--a perversely expansive 16-minute remake of the Platters' '50s hit (enlisting the services of R&B vocalist Fontella Bass)--to a Big Top burlesque of "It's Howdy Doody Time," to an abrasive free-form encounter called "Doom?," to a blushingly sentimental take of "When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain."
Though the other side is more restrained, even the subtle salsa-tinged "Rios Negroes" and the inscrutable "Rose Drop" are a far cry from the chamber jazz sound common to so many ECM releases. In fact, not since Charles Mingus or Rahshan Roland Kirk has a jazz musician so successfully combined such a quirky collection of stylistic elements--gospel, pop, R&B, funk, blues, free form--with broad humor.
Nowhere is that more apparent than on the extended "Great Pretender." Given the extroverted nature of Bowie's version, it would be easy to lose sight of his lyrical gifts if it weren't for the tune's lovely, lopsided theme. Sometimes Bowie stretches the melody out with languorous phrases that float above Hamiet Bluiett's baritone sax, drummer Phillip Wilson's shuffling rhythm and the moaning harmonies of Fontella Bass and David Peaston. Other times, the melody is punctuated by Bluiett's harsh improvisation and intervallic leaps.
Another trumpet album of note (actually, twin fluegelhorns for the most part) is the latest from Red Rodney and Ira Sullivan--"Spirits Within" (Elektra Musician E1-60020). This is the third album the pair has released since teaming up two years ago, and the first that doesn't lean heavily on Rodney's affinity for bop and blues phrasing.
As such, it's not likely to please Rodney's older fans, but it does demonstrate his versatility better than any other recent release, and is by far the most cohesive and forward-looking album he's made with Sullivan. Especially attractive is the album's title tune, contrasting Rodney's muted trumpet with Sullivan's soprano saxophone in a richly textured mood piece. While Sullivan, a multi-instrumentalist, has always excelled on tunes that require this sort of coloring, Rodney is now more than comfortable in this modern milieu..