Recent jazz albums don’t often get to the shelves of music stores in India, so the appearance here of this 2007 CD is news in itself. Of course, the fact that it won a Pulitzer Prize must have helped. Wynton Marsalis is a brilliant trumpeter with a beautiful tone, although controversial for his devotion to early jazz, the music of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington in particular.
As might have been guessed from its title, the album attempts to trace the history of the African-American people through music. Marsalis is aided by Walter Blanding on tenor and soprano saxophones, Dan Nimmer on piano, Carlos Henriquez on bass, Ali Jackson Jr. on drums and the voice of Jennifer Sanon. The use of vocals, integral to telling the story, again harks back to the roots of jazz, when the human voice was a more important part of the music than it is now. Helpfully, the liner notes of the album contain the lyrics of all the pieces in full.
Marsalis composed all the music on the album (presumably writing the lyrics as well) and ably succeeds in narrating the story line with his sextet. The title track, which opens the album, sets the mood with Jackson getting a workout on his drum kit, in which the tambourine plays a prominent role, a role that returns from time to time on the album to evoke the early days of slavery.
The music is tightly written as a suite, so one could have thought there was not much scope for improvisation, the very essence of jazz. But such apprehensions are repeatedly proved wrong by the meaty solos, taken by Marsalis and Blanding primarily, but also occasionally by Nimmer and at least once each by Jackson and Henriquez. Both Henriquez and Jackson are quite strong in their supporting roles, making this a well-balanced team effort.
The title track, “Supercapitalism” with its fast tempo evoking the hectic pace of the modern consumer society, and “Where Y’all at?”, with its rap vocal (probably Marsalis, judging by the voice) questioning what has become of the rebels of old, are the highlights of an album which should, however, be judged as an integral whole. And the whole comes off emphatically.