None other than Miles Davis himself pronounced trumpeter Wynton Marsalis a "perfect player," but that may have been damning with faint praise there was little grit in Marsalis's playing before this remarkable record. His first post-Reagan-era album finds Marsalis dropping the air of formality epitomized by 1987's Marsalis Standard Time, a genteel take on a dozen jazz standards. While the music gets back to some serious New Orleans roots even further back than Marsalis's conservative hard-bop revisionism did Majesty... Read More
of the Blues is an artistic quantum leap forward.
Right off the bat, on "Majesty of the Blues/Puheeman Strut," Marsalis tosses off a spectacular muted solo, harnessing massive technique in the name of some down-and-dirty playing. The rest of side one, "Hickory Dickory Dock," continues on a similarly lubricious note. If whorehouses still played jazz in the front room, this is what it would sound like.
On side two, Marsalis augments his young band with musicians such as eighty-year-old New Orleans jazz mainstay Danny Barker, who supplies some scrappy blues banjo. Up until now, Marsalis has rarely attempted the blues; on this album, it's the glue that unites both the musicians and the record.
A concept piece within a concept piece, side two is the three-part suite "New Orleans Function," starting with "The Death of Jazz," a funeral march, followed by "Premature Autopsy," a twenty-minute, digression-laden harangue-sermon-analysis on the sociocultural significance of jazz, delivered by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, a Chicago preacher, and written by jazz critic and Marsalis booster Stanley Crouch.
Although it lacks a truly righteous fire, the sermon is a thorough, although hardly concise, summation of the ethos of this album "an attitude of gutbucket grandeur." Wright spews flowery phrases such as "the ethereal aerodynamics of musical art in America" and salutes Duke Ellington, while Marsalis and company provide sly comments and interjections over a molasses-slow bawdyhouse boogie. The joyous Dixieland finale, "Oh, but on the Third Day!" ends as an unidentified band member yells, "Crescent City!"
Through the cathartic power of the blues, Marsalis has discovered that loose is more. Ironically, he had seemed to distance himself from his native New Orleans, which after all is the birthplace of jazz. But as Majesty of the Blues so powerfully proves, you can go home again. (RS 556-557)