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Wynton Marsalis Provokes Again With Head-Scratching ‘Ever Fonky Lowdown’ – The New York Times

Wynton Marsalis Provokes Again With Head-Scratching ‘Ever Fonky Lowdown’ – The New York Times


Wynton Marsalis Provokes Again With Head-Scratching ‘Ever Fonky Lowdown’
July 2, 2018
Wynton Marsalis’s Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra debuted a polemical opera on June 7.Vincent Tullo for The New York Times
Welcome to “The Month in Live Jazz,” a column highlighting three standout performances from the past month on stages across New York City. 
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra
It had been a while since Wynton Marsalis — the famously provocative trumpeter and Jazz at Lincoln Center patriarch — had stirred controversy on the level that he did in May. In an interview with The Washington Post, he declared that profanity in hip-hop is “more damaging” to the black community than the Confederate statues that have come down across the country.
The interview was part of the publicity push for “The Ever Fonky Lowdown,” a full-length opera that his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra debuted a couple of weeks later. It turns out the statements weren’t just campaign bluster. “The Ever Fonky Lowdown” largely took up the same concerns: what Mr. Marsalis openly calls the “pathology” of those who, to him, seem to celebrate their own poverty.
Oh boy.
Performed by the full orchestra, along with three singers, three dancers and the actor Wendell Pierce, who read most of the lines in the lengthy libretto, the suite offered occasional moments of musical verve, as on the funky, simmering theme song, the three female vocalists harmonizing in a high, chirping refrain (“It’s the ever-fonky lowdown”), and the Caribbean-flavored, swaggering “It May Sound Like the Drums of War.”
But unlike Mr. Marsalis’s other most recent work — 2016’s “Spaces,” featuring the orchestra in conversation with two dancers — the music here was tertiary. The ensemble arrangements were largely unimposing, and they allowed for scarce soloing. Mr. Marsalis meant this piece as a polemic.
Wendell Pierce played a character called Mr. Game in “The Ever Fonky Lowdown.”Vincent Tullo for The New York Times
Mr. Pierce’s character, called Mr. Game, is a carnival-barking composite of Upton Sinclair and Orson Welles villainy, explaining how capitalists hoodwink the less fortunate. But as the libretto’s historical narrative inched toward the present day, his caustic critiques fell with an increasingly relentless thud on the urban poor (“I love the ghetto and the old plantation, ’cause the good-ol’-time-attracting, character-detracting stories and the acting is for me”).
Later, in an almost unbelievable moment, Doug Wamble, a white guitarist, drawled a taunting ditty called “I Wants My Ice Cream.” (This piece was picking up on Mr. Game’s earlier argument that those who feast on hip-hop culture are refusing to do the hard work of eating their cultural “vegetables.”)
Seeing all this presented to a largely white, conspicuously wealthy crowd, it was hard not to feel uncomfortable. How many Mr. Games were there, quietly nodding in assent?
Imani Uzuri and Mike Ladd
As part of “On Whiteness,” the poet Claudia Rankine’s five-week, multidisciplinary interrogation at the Kitchen, Vijay Iyer was invited to assemble a four-night series of performances addressing racial identity and seeking angles of attack against white supremacy. On Day 4, back-to-back concerts from the vocalist Imani Uzuri (with Kassa Overall accompanying her on drums) and the poet Mike Ladd (helming a seven-person ensemble) addressed the topic with subtlety and vision.
Ms. Uzuri began her performance offstage, singing into a microphone in wordless, a cappella peals and shaking a tambourine. She walked through the audience and onto the stage in a slow, rhythmic step. Mr. Overall began to play behind her, first in a low rumble, then in a billowing circle of polyrhythms. As she sang clipped and stuttering renditions of old spirituals (“Wade in the Water,” “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” “It’s Me, O Lord”), she sometimes dropped to her knees or repeated short phrases, as if her body had given all it could. You felt the volume of the histories that had been lain upon her, simply by virtue of her birth.
Before and after her performance, a sound installation played of poets and artists discussing race, while a player piano ran through a preprogrammed set of Mr. Iyer’s improvisations. If you wondered why Ms. Uzuri and Mr. Ladd, two African-American artists, were headlining at an event interrogating whiteness, one gnomic line in this installation, spoken by the cinematographer Bradford Young, said it: “White folk don’t need to carry the baggage of white supremacy, because some black folk are going to carry it for them.”
Soon after that, Mr. Ladd took the stage with his band: the poets HPrizm and Ursula Rucker, Ms. Uzuri, Mr. Iyer, Mr. Overall and the electric guitarist Marvin Sewell. Their performance was titled “Blood Black and Blue,” and it drew upon Mr. Ladd’s conversations with black police officers. Toward the end, Mr. Ladd rolled tape of a female officer who said she sometimes feels like a modern-day overseer, keeping her peers penned in and closely watched.
“Blood Black and Blue” refused to point fingers or lay easy blame, instead exposing the heartbreak that often comes with carrying someone else’s baggage.
Peter Evans and Cory Smythe
The trumpeter Peter Evans performed with the pianist Cory Smythe at the Jazz Gallery.Vincent Tullo for The New York Times
The trumpeter Peter Evans and the pianist Cory Smythe, two of the most aggressively dazzling players in improvised music, recently released a short album inspired by another virtuoso American duo. Titled “Weatherbird,” it begins with the famous tune of that name recorded 90 years ago by the trumpeter Louis Armstrong and the pianist Earl Hines. On the album, Mr. Evans and Mr. Smythe play a relatively faithful rendition of the classic tune’s stippled, rag-like melody, then disassemble and erupt it over the course of five subsequent tracks.
At the Jazz Gallery, they hardly addressed that source material, instead swerving quickly into the open terrain of free improvisation. Mr. Evans began with a blast of notes, sustained and slow, alternating between muting the trumpet and cupping the microphone with its bell as he played. As Mr. Smythe played light but somber chords, sometimes using the soft pedal and adding a small complement of electronics, Mr. Evans played in gunshot gusts and stout melodies — assertive and bold, but vaguely absconded. He was matching Armstrong’s famous power, but not the gregariousness of his projection.


Jim Eigo Jazz Promo Services T: 845-986-1677 E-Mail: jim@jazzpromoservices.com



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