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Bolden and beyond

Branford (left) and Wynton Marsalis (Amy Harris/Invision/AP)

Bolden and beyond

Albums by Wynton and Branford Marsalis evocatively trace the evolution of jazz

Although they were conceived with entirely different goals, the latest albums by Wynton Marsalis and the quartet led by his younger brother Branford illuminate two parts of the same quintessentially American narrative: jazz’s disreputable birth in the sweltering fleshpots of late-19th-century New Orleans and its maturation into a high art form befitting the toniest venues of the present. 

Wynton’s album is Bolden (Blue Engine), the soundtrack to Dan Pritzker’s recently released biopic of the same name. Loosely structured and semi-fictitious, the film attempts to dramatize the scantily documented life of “King” Buddy Bolden (1877-1931), a legendary New Orleans cornetist often referred to as the father of jazz. 

The extent to which the film succeeds owes a lot to the elder Marsalis, who leads both the seven-man combo that re-creates Bolden’s performances and the 10-man orchestra that re-creates those of Louis Armstrong (whom the film depicts, not unreasonably, as picking up where Bolden left off after Bolden cracked beneath the weight of his incessant debauchery and was committed to the insane asylum where he died 24 years later).  

On the Bolden cuts—those that Bolden is believed to have played as well as those that Marsalis composed in his vein—Marsalis plays cornet while his band whips up exuberant simulacra of the brassy, and occasionally bawdy, sounds that even now characterize a New Orleans night, and sometimes day, on the town. 

And although there’s sophistication in the interplay of trombone, saxophones, and rhythm section, it’s the spirit of revelry, which always seems a hair’s breadth away from spiraling out of control, that commands attention. Unless the wax cylinder that Bolden supposedly recorded finally surfaces, these performances are the next best thing to being there. 

The Armstrong cuts feel more workmanlike. Practically everything that Armstrong ever recorded still circulates, limiting the degree to which even an ensemble as talented as Marsalis’ can go off script, so to speak, without annoying the cognoscenti. Still, there’s no denying the charm of Reno Wilson’s spot-on vocal impersonations (Wilson’s portrayal of Armstrong is one of the highlights of Pritzker’s film) or the affectionate enthusiasm with which Marsalis puts his estimable trumpet playing at the service of reimagining Satchmo.

Bridging the Bolden-Armstrong divide are two renditions—one featuring the cornet, the other the trumpet—of the aptly titled Marsalis composition “Timelessness.” A gorgeous piece, it unspools and refines Bolden’s and Armstrong’s celebratory compression while tempering it with a mournful trace of “Wade in the Water” and foreshadowing the Ellingtonian exotica that would soon comprise jazz’s next great leap forward. In short, the song belongs as much to the future as to the past. 

Something similar might be said of the Branford Marsalis Quartet’s The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul (Sony) if by “the past” one means the 1970s, the decade in which the two cover songs, a slightly slowed-down take on Andrew Hill’s “Snake Hip Waltz” and a fully wound-up take on Keith Jarrett’s “The Windup,” made their debut. On almost any other contemporary jazz album they’d be defining moments. 

The reason that they aren’t on The Secret is that any of the other five performances could be a defining moment too, the elegantly soothing “Conversation Among the Ruins” and “Cianna” no less than the rambunctiously improvisational “Dance of the Evil Toys” and “Nilaste.”

It only takes a little imagination to hear in them Bolden and Armstrong as refracted through a prism, after which their wheels within wheels spin free into orbits of their own.