Between 1987 and 1999, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis released 16 albums. Among these were six volumes of a series called Marsalis Standard Time.

Marsalis is frequently accused of being more interested in jazz’s past than its future, and that may be true. It’s definitely true that he believes the music’s future is only accessible through exploration of its past. This belief is at the root of his leadership of and writing for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra as well as that organization’s programs for children. And it may be a reason why, with the exception of Nate Wooley‘s (Dance to) the Early Music (which I reviewed for The Wire in 2016), his own compositions have largely been overlooked. Though he’s been writing and recording his own music since the early 1980s, little or none of it has been tackled by his peers or by succeeding generations. His controversial Pulitzer Prize for 1997’s Blood on the Fields aside, he is far better known as an interpreter than a composer. As a result, the Marsalis Standard Time series may say more about his music than any of his other albums, which makes them ripe for analysis.

Marsalis Standard Time, Vol. 1 was recorded in two two-day bursts in May and September 1986, and released a year later, in September 1987. The band included Marsalis, Marcus Roberts on piano, Robert Hurst on bass, and Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums. The repertoire fulfills the promise of the title—we get “Caravan,” “Autumn Leaves,” two short versions of “Cherokee,” “Foggy Day,” “Memories of You,” “New Orleans,” and more. There are two Marsalis originals, “Soon All Will Know” and “In the Afterglow,” tucked in there, too: a hard-swinging blues and a ballad, respectively.

Marsalis was a restrained player here. He frequently employs plunger mutes to give his horn a crying sound, but it’s more of a murmur than a wail. Roberts, who had joined the trumpeter’s band the previous year (this same lineup recorded 1986’s J Mood and Live at Blues Alley), takes a very old-school approach; his style is rooted in the 1930s rather than the 1950s or ’60s. Still, he’s able to throw some modernistic weirdness into the mix when he feels like it, as he does on a pleasingly clanking version of “The Song is You,” his chords landing with a Thelonious Monk-like force. He gets “Memories of You” to himself, and turns in a strong, stride-influenced performance. Hurst is surprisingly prominent in the mix, while Watts is comparatively restrained. On earlier Marsalis albums, particularly Black Codes (From the Underground), the drummer was an explosive force, but here, he holds back—he’s entirely absent from the drawing-room ballad “In the Afterglow”—the better to team up with the bassist and set up thick, bouncing grooves, on “Caravan” and “April in Paris” in particular.

For some reason, the next volume in the series to be released was Standard Time, Vol. 3: The Resolution of Romance. It came out in May 1990, and featured Ellis Marsalis on piano, Reginald Veal on bass, and Herlin Riley on drums. While it’s a long album—73 minutes—the pieces are often very short. There are 21 of them, and four of them run less than two minutes each; five more are under three minutes.

It opens with one of three Marsalis originals, “In the Court of King Oliver,” which showcases the interaction between father and son, as Riley creates a literally bouncing rhythm. It’s an odd way to start things off, as the explicit New Orleans feel it conjures is only intermittent throughout the rest of the disc. The album’s cover depicts Wynton Marsalis gazing admiringly at his father as the older man plays piano, and that’s the dominant mood here; “Never Let Me Go” is a trumpet-piano duo, leading directly into a version of “Street of Dreams.” Ellis Marsalis has a somewhat regal piano style, placing his notes with great care and never cutting loose. This in turn keeps his son somewhat restrained, and the rhythm section follows their lead. There are some interesting moments, though—on “The Seductress” (another duo), Wynton plays in an extraordinarily vocal style, as though singing bel canto through the horn.

Standard Time, Vol. 2: Intimacy Calling was released in March 1991. It was the product of two recording dates: a version of “What is This Thing Called Love?” was left over from the September 1987 sessions for Vol. 1, with Hurst and Watts on bass and drums, while the others were recorded in August 1990 with Veal and Riley. Tenor saxophonist Todd Williams guested on “I’ll Remember April” and “Crepuscule with Nellie,” with alto saxophonist Wessell Anderson also appearing on the latter track. Its subtitle might suggest an album of Quiet Storm-ish ballads, and the first and last tracks (“When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” and “Bourbon Street Parade”) nod to New Orleans, but for most of its running time Intimacy Calling is a hard-swinging hard bop record, particularly indebted to the work of the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet. Two of the pieces they play, “What Is This Thing Called Love?” and “I’ll Remember April,” were also played on that group’s final album, 1956’s At Basin Street, and the versions here owe a lot to the earlier interpretations, particularly “What Is…,” on which Watts strives for Roach’s twitchy precision, subverting his own predisposition to hammer the kit.

It took seven years for another volume in the Standard Time series to appear, and when it did, the sequence was juggled once again. Standard Time, Vol. 5: The Midnight Blues was released in April 1998, having been recorded the previous September at the Grand Lodge of the Masonic Hall in New York. The core band was Eric Reed on piano, Veal on bass, and Lewis Nash on drums, but they were bolstered by a string orchestra conducted by Robert Freedman. The strings are much more than wallpaper. Marsalis interacts with them more than with the trio; “After You’ve Gone” is introduced by cello and violin creating a desolate, almost despairing mood before he comes in. The Midnight Blues has the feel of one of Frank Sinatra‘s more downbeat 1950s albums like Where Are You?, Only the Lonely or No One Cares. Though he scales the heights of the trumpet’s range, he also seems to be murmuring phrases to himself a lot of the time. Two tracks are particularly striking. For many people, the definitive version of “It Never Entered My Mind” can be heard on Miles Davis‘s 1959 album Workin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet, and the interaction between trumpet and piano was crucial to that version. Marsalis goes another route, playing off the low strings (bass and cello), with no piano to start and only a whisper of drums. And the album-closing title track is another surprise. It’s a nearly 12-minute piece that perfectly blends the swing of the quartet with the lushness of the strings, and never feels overlong or meandering. This is the best album in the series after the first, perfectly capturing the sophistication of late 1950s jazz.

Marsalis Plays Monk—Standard Time Vol. 4 was not just part of the Standard Time series. It also kicked off Swinging Into the 21st, a series of nine albums Marsalis released between 1999 and 2000, which included ballet scores, modern classical and orchestral works, and a live date with his touring band, among other things. The band on Marsalis Plays Monk included Wessell Anderson on alto sax, Victor Goines and Walter Blanding on tenor saxes, Wycliffe Gordon on trombone, Eric Reed on piano, Ben Wolfe and Reginald Veal alternating on bass, and Herlin Riley on drums. The music was actually five years old, two of the pieces having been recorded in September 1993, while the rest were tracked in October 1994.

The music is as lush and genteel as most of Marsalis’s work. The arrangements emphasize the stateliness of Monk’s writing, a side often overlooked in favor of his deliberately rough, “off” rhythms and jarring chords. The horn charts glide more than they punch, striking a balance somewhere between the brilliance of Monk’s 1963 Big Band and Quartet in Concert and the overdone blare of 1968’s often overlooked Monk’s Blues. At its best, this album suggests an imaginary Duke Ellington album of Monk compositions, which is somewhat fitting, since Monk’s first Riverside Records album was 1955’s Plays Duke Ellington.

The Standard Time series concluded with its sixth volume, Mr. Jelly Lord, a collection of pieces by Jelly Roll Morton that was also included in the Swinging Into the 21st series. The band included Anderson on alto sax, Goines on multiple reeds (tenor sax, soprano sax, and clarinet), Michael White on clarinet, Gordon on trombone and tuba, Lucien Barbarin on trombone, various pianists (Eric Lewis mostly, with Danilo Perez, Eric Reed, and Harry Connick Jr. guesting on one track each), Donald Vappie on banjo and guitar, Veal on bass and Riley on drums. Fourteen of the 15 tracks come from a January 1999 session in New York, but the album’s closer, “Tom Cat Blues,” is a Wynton MarsalisEric Reed duo recorded in 1993 at Thomas Edison‘s former lab in West Orange, NJ, on Edison’s wax cylinder machine.

As an album, Mr. Jelly Lord is a lot of fun. The band is clearly having a blast digging into these tunes, with Riley setting up a stomping, clashing parade rhythm and the horns engaging in raucous polyphony and call-and-response. Marsalis is often at his best when growling through a plunger mute, and his interaction with trombonist Gordon is terrific throughout. But it’s reasonable to question what it has to do with the rest of the Standard Time series. Jelly Roll Morton‘s music is a highly specific thing—these are not tunes your average, non-Dixieland jazz group is likely to perform. The other five albums were exactly what they claimed to be: collections of jazz standards (Monk’s compositions are a major part of modern jazz repertoire, and have been since he first recorded them in the 1940s and 1950s) performed with reverence and just enough invention that Marsalis and company could claim to have made them their own. That balance between old and new is not only the heart of the trumpeter’s music, it’s the core of jazz (though each performer must decide for themselves how and where to draw the lines). But this one is a fairly straightforward re-creation of the past; even the spoken dialogue from Morton’s original recordings of “Dead Man’s Blues” and “Sidewalk Blues” is performed by the band.

The only two volumes in the Standard Time series that belong with the very best of Marsalis’s work (a list that also includes J Mood, Black Codes (From the Underground) and the Live at the Village Vanguard box set) are the first and the fifth. Still, if you want to know what animates him as a creator, these are probably the albums to start with, and every one is worth hearing at least once. Wynton Marsalis is an aesthetic conservative, but he’s hardly closed off to new ideas—his performance on pianist Myra Melford‘s “The Strawberry,” from the 2017 JLCO album Handful of Keys, more than proves that. So his interpretations of jazz’s past are not only creative, they’re immediately recognizable as his own, which is really all you can ask for.

Phil Freeman

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