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Our failures as a society

Wynton Marsalis - From the Plantation
to the Penitentiary

(Blue Note Records)
4 stars (out of 5 stars)
Reviewed: Dec. 8, 2007
Wynton Marsalis

Review by Brad Walseth

It takes deep conviction to take an unpopular stand these days, but Wynton Marsalis has done just that with his controversial release, From the Plantation to the Penitentiary. Decrying the lack of progress in attaining equal rights in America, the noted trumpeter/composer rails against many of the ills facing modern society and especially black youth culture. Equating the chains that enslaved their ancestors with the gold chains modern young hip-hoppers sell their souls for, Marsalis calls everyone to task including capitalists, white "safari seekers," liberals as well as right-wingers, and doesn't spare the blame from African Americans themselves.

Marsalis bemoans the culture of gangsterism, baby mamas, songs that lack romance and rely on the lowest denominator beats and sexist lyrics and asks where are the leaders like the ones who fought during the Civil Rights Era. In an age when the percentage of black male youths unemployed or in prison is staggering and a true embarrassment to an enlightened society, Marsalis risks being called a conservative curmudgeon, out of touch with today's youth and demanding ideals such as self-reliance and morality that seem outdated in today's wasteful, live-for-the-moment, get your own and everyone else be damned way of life. But dammit he's right, we are all responsible for our failures as a society.

It takes patience and understanding of one another. The typical white American viewpoint is confusion that black Americans haven't made the economic gains that other minorities seem to have. But as a people that were enslaved until four generations ago, who couldn't eat in the same restaurant just one generation ago, and who are still viewed as less-than-human by a segment of white society, aren't these precisely the people who deserve some attention and consideration? All of America profited by the labors of slaves whether your family owned them or not, we owe Black America reparations just as we owe it to them to see that things like health care, education and jobs are available for all Americans. It is the "Supercapitalism" that minimizes human life to mere economic data that Wynton warns of, and it is the same evil of Greed that has existed since the dawn of time.

The pieces contained in this release display Marsalis tasteful and masterful ability to compose using various styles, often within the same song. Swing, ballad, Charleston, Cha-Cha, Shuffle, 2nd Line Swing with a Motown Vamp are some of the styles included. The title track begins with what sounds like the forging and rattling of chains and is a truly haunting song - perhaps the best and most important of the year. Dan Nimmer's arpegiated piano, Carlos Henriquez and Ali Jackson, Jr. on bass and drums, the underrated Walter Blanding on saxophones and the soft vocals of Jennifer Sanon combine with Marsalis angry trumpet to memorable effect. There is rage here, justified rage about a country where the majority of white Americans can't understand why a noose hanging in the tree in a southern town should cause such a commotion. Marsalis' lyrics have been criticized for being simplistic, but truths are sometimes simple and the emotions behind the words are clear.

"Find Me" is a luscious "Modern Habernera" with Sanon's girlish vocals recalling Astrud Gilberto, which explores the fate of the homeless and forgotten ones living on the streets and in the shadows. Some critics have found fault with Sanon's voice, but I find it strangely compelling and serves to soften the delivery without subverting the message. The instrumental "Doin' (Y)our Thing" shows the band indeed doing their own thing - burning it up on an agreeable number that moves across 2-beat country groove, Soca, Cumbia and Swing.

"Love and Broken Hearts" brings Sanon back on a ballad where she sings "I ain't your bitch. I ain't your ho." And "It's time for the return of romance. It's time for you and me to slow dance." The quaintly old-fashioned beliefs espoused here are backed nicely by a sweet arrangement, and Wynton's glowing horn can nearly convince the most jaded of modern listeners of the beauty and worth in sentimental romantic feelings again. Meanwhile, "Supercapitalism" humorously contrasts Sanon's rapid fire "Gimme this, Gimme that" with her slow bluesy "There's never enough." Blanding, Jackson and Nimmer especially shine here. Beneath the light facade, it is the "Supercapitalism" that minimizes human life to mere economic data that Wynton warns of, and it is the same evil of Greed that has existed since the dawn of time.

"These are Those Soulful Days" is just flat out a shimmering walking ballad with wonderful interplay from the entire band. But it is the album ender, "Where Y'all At?" that has perhaps generated the most heated controversy. On this song, the anti-rapper Wynton raps (?!) and this has caused considerable consternation. As a lyricist, Marsalis skills admittedly do not equal his trumpet abilities. Some of the lines are a bit clunky, but many are pretty clever and insightful and seem to parody the abilities of the current crop of wordsmiths. And the basic question being posed is where is everyone hiding while the country burns and it is a most important one.

Kudos to Wynton for taking a stand. Some may disagree with elements of his arguments, but I'm sure no one can dispute that the journey from the plantation to the penitentiary has been another shameful episode in American history. This important release features excellent music and social criticism in a work that is a descendant of the works of people like Charles Mingus, Max Roach and Oscar Brown, Jr. Album artwork features paintings of American faces by Jessica Benjamin and perhaps the most haunting is that of a young black boy whose radiant face seems to be absorbing everything and reflecting his surroundings, with anger, fear, sadness, disappointment and yes, hope, all contained in his young eyes. Marsalis' message seems to be that it is the children who need all of our help to finally remove the chains. Will we hear it in time?

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