Jazz review The Socialist 12 July 2007

Political discourse can swing!

From the plantation to the penitentiary by Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis has never shirked controversy but with the release of From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, it appears he decided to take on all comers! Dave Gorton, Mansfield & North Derbyshire Socialist Party, CWI-England and Wales

Coinciding with the bicentennial of the ending of the slave trade, it deals with the position of black Americans. One Guardian critic termed it "an explicit critique of capitalist materialism and continuing racist oppression".

Few are untouched - governments, 60s radicals, liberal students, 'equal rights pleaders', black hip-hop artists - all come under fire, although sometimes in political confusion.

It's unlikely this album would have emerged as it has done without Hurricane Katrina which laid bare the way capitalist America treats millions of black (and Hispanic) people.

Since then Marsalis has been involved in projects aimed at rebuilding New Orleans, alongside other well-known musicians like Aaron Neville and Dr John.

He has witnessed government promises of regeneration prove empty, whilst £billions are spent on an invasion thousands of miles away. ("We runnin' all over the world with a blunderbuss; And the constitution all but forgot in the fuss", from Where Y'All At?)

Marsalis is a critic of hip-hop music and the lifestyle of some top performers. Some of his arguments hold no water. Arguing that hip-hop musicians using tape loops are betraying the African-American tradition by forsaking "the drum - the central instrument of African-American music, the sound of freedom" is pretentious nonsense. Marsalis attacks the bling culture of hip-hop while he advertises Movado watches - bling in the extreme.

But socialists will sympathise with his attacks on some of the misogynist and sexist (sometimes homophobic) attitudes of leading male hip-hop protagonists. "I ain't your bitch, I ain't your ho" sings 21-year old Jennifer Sanon in a robust riposte.

What about the music? If you're not into jazz...don't buy it! If you are there's no need to fear it being too left-field. Wynton Marsalis is a fine trumpet player who appreciates jazz as it was played in the mid-20th century.

Miles Davis once rebuked Marsalis for being unadventurous. But capitalism thrives on shifting units for profits and innovations in music only usually become popular once they have ceased to shock.

All reviews are subjective. One described saxophonist Walter Blanding's playing as 'struggling to excite'; another likened it to John Coltrane!

But I think most jazz aficionados will agree that drummer Ali Jackson Jnr stands out, from the percussive effect on the title track, clearly depicting a chain gang rhythm, to the gentler sounds on the instrumental These Are Those Soulful Days. Each successive generation of drummers in rock bands could do no worse than listen to and learn from those plying their trade as jazz drummers.

From the Plantation to the Penitentiary is not a socialist epic. Marsalis himself is not short of a few bob; his attacks on 'the left and the right' come from seeing the Democrat/Republican axis as left versus right when they are two sides of the same capitalist coin.

But for all this criticism, and unless socialists are only going to entertain music made by socialists, I would much rather listen to thought-provoking albums like this than some bland manufactured sound about who fancies who in an American high school! As one review put it "It also proves that, in the right hands, political discourse can swing".

Whatever you think of the political accuracy of the lyrics, I suggest you just grab a glass of something that takes your fancy, turn the music up and enjoy!

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