From the Plantation to the Penitentiary
Wynton Marsalis has long been a polarizing figure in American music, starting in the early '80s when, as a young trumpet phenom, he became jazz's self-appointed reactionary, criticizing electric and avant-garde jazz and sometimes pop music in general, while advocating a return to acoustic virtues. The trumpeter's nascent, small-ensemble work strongly echoed that of Miles Davis' 1960s quintet; over time, Marsalis regressed back to the early jazz of his hometown New Orleans.
So initially it's a little odd to find Wynton Marsalis trying something new — or at least something that can be construed as forward-looking. I'll pause to give him credit for that ...
Now to cases: From the Plantation to the Penitentiary is a failure. Whatever people may think of Marsalis as a composer — profound or ponderous (both?) — this new album makes one thing abundantly clear: He's no songwriter. Five of the disc's seven tunes are full-on vocal pieces, with overwrought and sometimes downright awkward melodies that can be grating on the ears. It seems clear that he's allowed his sophisticated harmonic knowledge to stand in the way of writing a pleasing tune. The disc gets off to a woeful start with the simmering, mid-tempo title track and its overly precious dissonances — "sour notes," to put it more succinctly.
While Marsalis does occasionally land on an agreeable melodic line, they're suffocated by constant rhythm shifts, tricky, small-group arrangements and other stuff intended to make the music more "important."
Another red flag in the Marsalis milieu: Beware when he gets topical. On From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, he criticizes the lingering effects of slavery, consumer culture and a lack of leadership in America; he casts hip-hop as the new minstrelsy ("I ain't your bitch I ain't your ho/And public niggerin' has got to go"). While there are some worthy messages here, it's done in such a prosaic, heavy-handed and didactic fashion that it elicits more cringing than enlightenment. (Overall, he's not saying much that we haven't heard before.)
The singer left to interpret all this is 21-year-old Jennifer Sanon. She gives it a game try, but ultimately sounds as if she's working to navigate the words and melodies instead of inhabiting them. A larger question arises: How do you find feeling in songs as stiff and pretentious as these?
Marsalis takes the mic on the album-closing "Where Y'all At?," a second-line chant interspersed with his vocals — kind of a cross between spoken word and rap — jauntily spewing lines like "All you feminists and mothers, fathers and brothers/ I guess you'd pimp your daughters if you had your druthers." (Ouch.)
Not surprisingly, the album's best tune is the instrumental "Doin' (Y)our Thing," its best section a fluid Marsalis trumpet solo over a gliding swing groove. It lasts about two minutes. 1.5 stars —Eric Snider
The Third Hand
Rjd2 earned his rep thanks to his masterful Def Jux debut, Deadringer, back in 2002 — building up intricate, sample-based hip-hop that, for the most part, dispensed with rapping altogether. His skill at layering funky beats and atmospheric touches made words superfluous. With The Third Hand (LP number three), Rj has left Def Jux behind and abandoned straight hip-hop, striking out with a new persona: hip-hop singer/songwriter. You can still hear Rj's past in these songs' funky breakbeats, but this time those drums are backing a series of piano- and guitar-driven pop-rock tunes, with live and legit crooning from Rj. The move is bold. His songwriting skills don't yet match his talent for sonic detail, but this set is surprisingly successful at merging hip-hop with moody folk and pop. Purists on either side of the divide might not dig it, but for those of us in between, The Third Hand sounds damn nice. 3.5 stars —Cooper Levey-Baker
Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby
Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby
There must come a time in every country boy's life when he simply must cover "Super Freak," one of many highlights on this choice collaboration between bluegrass great Ricky Skaggs and '80s chart-topper-turned-jam-band-fave Bruce Hornsby. In addition to the hillbilly take on the Rick James classic, there's a poignant reworking of the Hornsby hit "Mandolin Rain," sprite instrumentals such as "Stubb" and ace renditions of public-domain numbers like "The Hills of Mexico." Fans of both artists and several genres should find something to appreciate in this entertaining and impressive joint production. 3.5 stars —Wade Tatangelo