Has Wynton Marsalis‘s music become audible again? For years, it was impossible to hear it over all the rhetoric that surrounded it (coming from him, and aimed at him). But that’s died down a lot over the past decade or so, starting around the time he left Columbia, his corporate home of two decades (1981-2002), and signed with Blue Note. (This may be a coincidence; it may not. But Blue Note artists don’t tend to issue strident public proclamations.) These days, he seems to be leading a quieter existence, one more jazz musician whose albums don’t actually sell any better than his less-fêted peers. So…time to listen to the music.

Black Codes (From the Underground) (buy it from Amazon) was released at the tail end of 1985. It’s a quintet record featuring Branford Marsalis on tenor and soprano saxophones, Kenny Kirkland on piano, Charnett Moffett on bass and Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums. This was before jazz albums began to bloat and become CD-filling exercises in tedium, so there are only seven tracks, with a total running time of 51 minutes.

The opening title track features some impressive playing from the brothers, Wynton more than Branford, and positively cataclysmic drumming from Watts. Kirkland and Moffett assert themselves but are sidelined by everything else that’s going on. The bassist’s sound is thick and buzzy, very much like Charlie Haden sounded when backing Ornette Coleman and/or Keith Jarrett in the ’70s. It’s not my favorite bass sound, but it works well enough here. Wynton’s solo is long, but elegantly structured; Branford’s solo, on soprano sax, seems less thought-out and more like a collection of ideas strung together. He juxtaposes short, herky-jerky phrases and long squiggly runs, and they’re good and sometimes exciting, but it’s all sort of forgettable once he’s done. There’s a surprising degree of funk to Moffett’s playing, given the context, and that gives Kirkland’s piano solo a powerful groove to ride, his melodies spattering notes like rain falling on a surging ocean.

The album’s second track, “For Wee Folks,” begins with Branford stating the melody, still blowing soprano as his brother plays muted trumpet and Watts keeps the cymbals delicately whooshing. Soon enough, it shifts into a slightly more aggressive gear than the ballad-like intro, though it never gets above a canter. This piece strongly recalls the Miles Davis quintet of 1965-68, particularly their early albums E.S.P. and Miles Smiles. No one is specifically emulating anyone else, though Herbie Hancock‘s tinkling style can be heard in Kirkland’s solo and the horns’ interplay has an undeniable Davis/Wayne Shorter feel.

The third track, “Delfeayo’s Dilemma” (named for another Marsalis brother), bears an even more inescapable resemblance to the work of the Davis quintet; both Wynton and Branford (who’s playing tenor here) seem to be consciously walking in the footsteps of their forefathers. Wynton is a much more technically skilled trumpeter than Davis was, but his phrasing is often directly derived from the older man’s. This imitative mode continues through “Phryzzinian Man” and “Aural Oasis,” and while nobody embarrasses himself, nothing revelatory happens, either. It’s not until “Chambers of Tain” that the Davis influence is finally shrugged off, and even then, it’s only due to the efforts of the drummer, who takes a solo that’s more influenced by Keith Moon or Ginger Baker than Tony Williams. Seriously, it’s crushingly heavy, and the present-day Wynton Marsalis, with his clearly defined ideas about what is and is not jazz, would never have let him get away with all those rolls across the toms.

The album’s final piece, simply titled “Blues,” is one of its most beautiful. It’s a duet for trumpet and bass, nearly five and a half minutes of lyrical phrases and long-held notes—seriously; Marsalis holds one for 22 seconds, midway through the piece—that’s more Louis Armstrong than Davis, as Moffett bounces along behind him, with a more woody, old-school tone than he’s had anywhere else on the record. It’s a great way to end a solid, impressive disc—slightly more mellow than what’s come before, but on the same high instrumental level as everything else.

Black Codes is frequently described as a career high point for Wynton Marsalis. I can’t judge that without listening to a lot more of his records, and I’m unlikely to do so. But I can definitely see myself coming back to this one in the future. It doesn’t shatter any boundaries, but I don’t want it to. I respect Wynton Marsalis’s conservatism—he serves a purpose. Somebody has to maintain walls, if breaking through them is to have any meaning.

Phil Freeman

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