Wynton Marsalis‘s artistic reputation is pretty much carved in stone. Those who think of him as nothing but a conservative pining for the days of Ellington, Basie, Miles, and all things pre-1965 will never be convinced that there’s anything more to him. But over the last few years, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra under his leadership has released a string of ambitious and impressive albums. They’re not all winners, of course; the recent The Ever Fonky Lowdown was an overwrought, unfunny satirical misfire, the basketball-themed Rock Chalk Suite is just okay, and their performance of Duke Ellington‘s Black, Brown and Beige really adds nothing to the original. But Handful of Keys, The Music of Wayne Shorter, Christopher Crenshaw’s The Fifties: A Prism, Sherman Irby’s Inferno, The Music of John Lewis, and Swing Symphony are all well worth hearing, and some are strikingly original. They write and arrange interesting material, and perform it in a way that demonstrates a strong collective voice while leaving a lot of room for individual expression. What more could one ask for?

The Democracy! Suite, the latest album to arrive under the JALC umbrella, features a subset of the full group; they’re billed as the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra Septet (as opposed to the Wynton Marsalis Septet, I guess). It was recorded live in JALC’s Appel Room during COVID-19 lockdown, and the personnel includes Ted Nash on alto sax and flute; Walter Blanding on tenor and soprano saxes; Elliot Mason on trombone; Dan Nimmer on piano; Carlos Henriquez on bass; and Obed Calvaire on drums. It’s a concise, potent album featuring eight tracks in just under 45 minutes, all written by Marsalis and apparently intended to work as a whole, though they can easily be absorbed and enjoyed individually. They’re tunes, not movements.

The opening “Be Present” features a punchy, melodic head that could have come off an early ’60s Freddie Hubbard album for Blue Note, but the four-piece horn section, particularly Mason’s trombone, gives it a lushness and romanticism that classic hard bop didn’t often demonstrate. Blanding’s tenor style harkens back to the swing era, and when he’s shadowing Marsalis, tossing in comments on the leader’s solo, the musical conversation between ’40s and ’60s is fascinating.

“Sloganize, Patronize, Realize, Revolutionize…” is more raucous. It’s not quite a Marsalis attempt to grapple with free jazz, but it has the gutsy feel of Charles Mingus, particularly when Blanding starts his solo with a harsh, squalling cry that provokes a verbal response from the leader. Henriquez’s bass solo is short but potent. “Deeper Than Dreams” is a deep, bluesy ballad with some New Orleans harmonies and a few unexpectedly sharp edges. Nash’s alto solo sounds like a weeping donkey (in a good way). “Out Amongst the People (for J Bat)” is built atop a hip- and tambourine-shaking parade rhythm, and Blanding’s soprano solo starts things off in a raucously celebratory manner before Calvaire’s brief, heavy-footed break leads Marsalis in. Everyone gets a quick moment in the spotlight, sometimes little more than a line or two before the primary melody returns, but each player makes the most of it.

The album ends with another parade-like tune, “That’s When All Will See,” but it combines the romping New Orleans street rhythm with warm, layered, Ellington-esque horn arrangements, giving it a sophistication that the energetic beat might otherwise subvert. And when trumpet and saxophones and trombone begin polyphonic debate, one taking over from the other as though to say, “Yes, but…”, the sense of joyous exhilaration is unmistakable. Despite the track titles and the album title (including that unfortunate exclamation mark), there’s nothing pedantic about The Democracy! Suite. Marsalis has resisted the urge to include a speechifying narrator, and simply let the music speak for itself. The result is his best small group album in quite a few years, and a welcome addition to the JALC Orchestra’s already-strong catalog.

Phil Freeman

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