Robert Christgau on Wynton Marsalis's Smarts and Chops
The Dean of American Rock critics reviews the Wynton Marsalis Septet's 'United We Swing: Best of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Galas,' Moby Grape's 'Live,' and the 'Outlaws & Armadillos' compilation.
The self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it. He was the music editor at the Village Voice for almost four decades where he created the trusted annual Pazz & Jop Poll. He was one of the first mainstream critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: "Melodic." On top of his columns, he has published six books, including his 2015 autobiography, Going Into the City. He currently teaches at New York University. Every week, we publish Expert Witness, his long-running critical column. To find out more about his career, read his welcome post; for four decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.
Wynton Marsalis Septet: United We Swing: Best of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Galas (Blue Engine) The trumpeter-bureaucrat didn't just tamp down his jazz chauvinism as such pop titans as Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson and roots flamekeepers as the Blind Boys of Alabama and Tedeschi-Trucks paid their respects at these 2003-2007 fund-raisers. He put his smarts, chops, and combo at the full service of artistes from Jimmy Buffett to Audra Macdonald. There's not much guitar and, you guessed it, no rapping whatsoever. But just about every song is enlarged. Dylan negotiates the horns that elaborate "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" like the born hipster he is. Lyle Lovett is a hipster too. Macdonald was made for "Creole Love Call" as she was for little else. Ray Charles is alive, which was all it ever took. James Taylor and John Mayer put their all into self-penned songs about what dicks they are. "Are You Gonna Go My Way" is transformed into nine-tenths of the freedom song Lenny Kravitz dreamt it could be. Derek Trucks's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" solo very nearly obliterates that feat. And to top off his show of shows, Marsalis sings a song of his own—sans Auto-Tune, you bet. A MINUS
Moby Grape: Live (Sundazed) Was there a more galvanic live band in Haight-era San Francisco than this biz-fabricated quintet of Seattle and LA interlopers, who coalesced to record a dynamite debut they spent the rest of their lives trying to wrest from their manager? Maybe not. The Detroit primitivism of Big Brother's James Gurley rode the jazz-schooled beat of David Getz, and for quite a while there the Dead's Bill Kreutzmann was just a kid. But the chops of these doomed young pros, every one of whom could sing and write terse, catchy, well-structured songs, were powered by one of the scene's few true rock drummers, Don Stevenson. So as five voices trade leads on 19 selections from five 1966-69 gigs (including their forgotten opening slot at a Monterey Pop Festival they should have been smack in the middle of), their controlled distortion and power melodies obliterate the wet noodling and wispy lyricism of the "ballroom" ex-folkies who considered them phonies. Here be a B.B. cover, long and short versions of the ecstatic "Omaha," and a freakout that proves how much they wanted to fit in. And everywhere there's Stevenson, reminding them to keep it loud as they keep it moving. Quicksilver Messenger Service was never like this. A MINUS
Outlaws & Armadillos: Country's Roaring '70s (Legacy) Although this Country Music Hall of Fame-certified double-CD never admits it, it means to link the de facto folkies Nashville songwriters with hippie tendencies inevitably became with Waylon and Willie—also Kris Kristofferson, who achieved their dream, and Emmylou Harris, they wished. But the tracklist just isn't sure-shot. I've never fallen for Townes Van Zandt or Steve Young like I'm supposed to, so why don't "Rex's Blues" and "No Place to Fall" convince me to try again? And while you may have missed deadpan Tom T. Hall and early-blooming Joe Ely, "Joe, Don't Let Your Music Kill You" and "I Had My Hopes Up High" won't send you hightailing to Spotify like you should. On the other hand, I am now convinced that Kinky Friedman's "Sold American" shoulda been a hit and Michael Murphey's "Cosmic Cowboy" deserves its legend, and give thanks for Bobby Bare's "Marie Laveau," Lou Ann Barton's "You Can Have My Husband," Gary P. Nunn's "London Homesick Blues," Commander Cody's "Too Much Fun," and Johnny Paycheck's "11 Months and 29 Days," none of which had previously set up residence in my recall memory. Also, this is as good a place as any to discover Terry Allen and the Flatlanders, whose debut albums I think I'll go play right now. B PLUS
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