By Derek Taylor
Wynton Marsalis has made it his mission to marginalize avant garde elements in the jazz world. The evidence is extensive from his neo-“young lions” ethos through his polarizing presence in Ken Burns’ Jazz and parochial approach to Lincoln Center arts curation on down. What gets routinely obfuscated in the strong-arming advancement of Marsalis’ polemical viewpoint is the obvious talent and intelligence at his disposal. The trumpeter has chops and his compositional acumen isn’t far behind. His track record for raising public appreciation for his chosen art form is similarly accomplished and revered.
Nate Wooley embodies an intriguing counterpart operating most commonly on the other side of the imaginary idiomatic divide, but with an ecumenical open-mindedness at odds with Marsalis’ insularity. Like Marsalis who’s also made a mark in classical and liturgical music, Wooley’s interests extend in a number of directions outside “jazz” including electro-acoustic and free improvisation. (Dance To) The Early Music bridges the palpable distance between the two musicians as Wooley engages a program comprised predominately of Marsalis compositions with his working quintet.
The album title delivers a dual temporal reference point to both Marsalis’ early work during his tenure on the Columbia label and Wooley’s own formative exposure to said albums as an adolescent. He takes pains to distance the project from political agenda or inveiglement, preferring to view it instead as a nostalgic catalyst for creative rejuvenation. The rich, swooping sonorities of trumpet alongside Josh Sinton’s bass clarinet that initiate “Hesitation” (borrowed from Marsalis’ 1981 debut) are the first sign that Wooley is committed to following his own path through the figurative briar patch.
“For the Wee Folks” introduces Matt Moran’s vibraphone as additional coloring agent in the ensemble paint box, the bucolic theme dispensed with in short order in favor of more introspective interplay. Bassist Eivind Opsvik and drummer Harris Eisenstadt are equal and active participants, shaping a bustling commentary around Sinton and Moran’s solos. “Blues”, co-composed by the leader and Opsvik, belies its generic title with a texture-saturated duet for muted brass and bottom-dwelling bass while “Delfeayo’s Dilemma” offers singular and vibrant variations on Marsalis funk structures that highlight the band’s multidirectional prowess.
The breath sounds, mouthpiece ministrations and funnelled reed overtones that open “Phryzzinian Man” from Black Codes (1985) are about as far from Marsalis convention as imaginable, but the entrance of the other players grounds the piece is an ambling atmospheric shuffle. Opsvik takes the piece out with a ceiling-pitched arco drone. “Skain’s Domain” from is similarly situated well outside its composer’s comfort zone with a solo preface by Wooley bursting with extended brass effects. “On Insane Asylum”, one of two Wooley originals, pares participants down to leader and rhythm with bassist and drummer once again devising a demanding set of paces.
Marsalsis’ classicist agenda has softened in recent years and while he hasn’t exactly recanted his earlier hardline stances there are signs of hope. Intended or not, Wooley’s overture is an instant olive branch recognizing and embracing the elder trumpeter’s worth while remaining true to his own creative impulses and allegiances. Here’s hoping Wynton’s got the window to his ivory tower open and is listening.