Review | Wynton Marsalis Septet, a Horn of Plenty
The Wynton Marsalis Septet’s Santa Barbara Granada Concert was Short on Original Music, but Long on Musical Prowess
Masterful trumpeter and band leader Wynton Marsalis made good on his tradition of an annual visit to Santa Barbara, again hosted by UCSB Arts & Lectures at the Granada Theatre last week. One major difference this time out: he appeared not with his customary Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra filling the stage, but in the leaner, meaner setting of his Septet. For the record, this was the first time we’d seen this Marsalis combo style since he was a young lion, bringing his hot quintet to such bygone venues as Oscars and Bebop Burger.
But there was a secondary distinction with this Wynton-ian encounter. Rather than showcase his impressive skills as composer and arranger, he mostly pulled out charts from the jazz standards book — and the low-hanging fruit of such commonplace tunes as “Caravan,” “Take the A Train,” and “Tenor Madness” (a back-and-forth forum for the fine and inventive young tenor saxists Abdias Armenteros and Chris Lewis). Marsalis did pull out the brisk piece “Ballot Box Bounce:” from his Democracy! Suite — which Santa Barbara heard in streaming mode during the COVID lockdown — but we were left yearning for the kind of fresh originality presented in, for instance, his Septet-based 2000 masterpiece Marciac Suite.
That quibble aside, what the Granada concert did lavish us with was a chance to hear the trumpeter stretching out and pushing boundaries, in a way he doesn’t allow himself to in his big band setting. Each solo was a micro-adventure of its own devising, from the sculptural filigree and timbral twists of the opening “Free to Be” to the surprising elaborations and winks of humor in his opening to “Embraceable You.” He finished off with a bravura, perpetually mobile 16th-note blur on an “headless” encore of “Cherokee,” that pivotal tune in the margin between swing and bebop. In short, on this night, Marsalis proved the ongoing measure of his mastery.
As expected, Marsalis placed himself in impeccably fine company in this Septet, comprised of members from the JALC band — the increasingly impressive pianist Dan Nimmer, trombonist Chris Crenshaw and bassist Carlos Henriquez — and the “youngsters” in the sax/reed spots alongside nimble drummer Domo Branch. In a special guest cameo spot, the stellar Los Angeles-based drummer Jeff Hamilton (Clayton-Hamilton Big Band, Diana Krall, etc.) swung by for a couple of well-swung tunes.
Compared to the formality and sophisticated presentation of our conventional meetings with Marsalis in town, this year’s model was a much more casual, “blowing off steam” affair. In effect, the Septet transformed the Granada into a standards-fare-trumpeting Tuesday Night Jazz Club, writ large.