“From the Plantation to the Penitentiary”
Blue Note Records
In the liner notes to “From the Plantation to the Penitentiary,” the new disc from Wynton Marsalis, venerable jazz writer Stanley Crouch proclaims he “continues to prove his preeminence as a trumpet player and a leader of men.” Indeed, one listen confirms that Crouch’s claim is certainly no exaggeration.
“From the Plantation to the Penitentiary” is undeniably Marsalis’ most politically outspoken disc. This is best exemplified on the final and most incendiary track on the disc, “Where Y’all At?” Incorrectly identified as a “rap by Wynton” by some listeners and critics, the track actually features Marsalis in a spoken word piece. In it, he takes sharp aim at the greed, apathy and hypocrisy that continue to pervade the country. Like the other vocal tracks on the disc, “Where Y’all At?” is a pointed commentary on both the state of the nation and the state of the African-American community.
Musically, Marsalis leads a quintet that moves with a laid-back ease between hard bop, swing and balladry. The rhythm section of pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Carlos Henriquez and drummer Ali Jackson Jr. lay down a soulful groove that reminds listeners of the great debt that jazz owes the blues.
Saxophonist Walter Blanding trades licks with Marsalis in a style that recalls the Blue Note sound of the 1960s. The biggest revelation here, though, is that of 21-year-old singer Jennifer Sanon, who sings on all but two of the tracks. Her subtle, yet incisive voice channels Nina Simone through Dinah Washington.
“From the Plantation” is not, as some have speculated, an attempt to garner a new, larger or younger audience. Nothing could be further from the truth, as Marsalis has vehemently pointed out in several recent interviews. Ultimately, it is a bold musical and political statement made by a man who as both artist and teacher continues to proudly carry the torch of jazz.