Wynton Marsalis – He and She (2009)

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NICK DERISO: “He and She,” trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’ fifth Blue Note recording, is a toe-tapping celebration, a cautionary tale and a loving requiem for the journey that passion takes.

There’s poetry in the playing but, perhaps unfortunately, also actual poetry.

“He and She,” recorded live over a two-day period and minimally edited, features a heady mix of New Orleans street jazz, hard- and post- bop and Latin jazz, much of it done in a romantic waltz time. The tunes, however, are stitched together with a recitation of Marsalis-penned verse.

There’s no problem in the telling of it. Marsalis has a confidential, honey-rich way of talking, and that makes for warm and inviting bridges from one theme to the next. Still, you figure over repeated listenings that these iambic musings, most about a minute long, could become less engrossing.

Marsalis’ playing, however, is a different matter. At 47, his sound remains an intriguing blend of satiny cool, ingenious mirth and ageless style.

“School Boy” has all of the humorous abandon associated with that age. Pianist Dan Nimmer tip toes through a solo turn as a kid would over a log, while drummer Ali Jackson trots alongside like a trusted hound. As the album’s central relationship begins to grow, Marsalis moves into “The Sun and Moon,” a sensual theme that sizzles like young love — closing in then darting back with a flirtatious abandon.

There follow moments of taken-aback surprise (the boppish “Sassy”), creeping doubt (“Fear,” with quivering Miles Davis-like lines) and dizzying passion (“The Razor Rim,” a lengthy and swinging track). “He and She” marks the first crushes, first slow dances, first kisses, the first time.

All along, of course, there is much at stake here — as we’re reminded by “Zero,” with its memorable turn by saxophonist Walter Blanding. This song provides a smoky reminder of the way the blues (with its cyclic insistence on the stark reality of things) moves underneath and through jazz music. Then “Girls!,” driven at first by bassist Carlos Henriquez, underscores why we’re willing to risk that kind of devastation — bouncing along with a twinkling amazement.

As a relationship deepens, a short-hand develops, a kind of sign language of the heart. In a very real sense, this is the most complex subject matter Marsalis attacks on “He and She” — and he rises to that challenge at the record’s end, with “A Train, A Banjo and a Chicken Wing.” Paced like a man and women finishing each other’s sentences, we find Blanding and then Marsalis engaging in an entertaining back-and-forth — teasing and prodding, arguing and making up like a still-in-love elderly couple.

As with love, this isn’t necessarily anything particularly new, but yet there remains a lasting mystery — something that draws you back in — about Marsalis’ music. A poet at heart, the New Orleans native carries a dog-eared copy of poems by Yeats everywhere he goes — and an innate lyricism in Marsalis’ playing has grown increasingly, pleasingly pronounced.

Maybe that’s just it: In a world becoming increasingly cacophonous, “He and She” (poetry and all) is that rare find — a gorgeous, grown-up record.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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