Like Brubeck, Benson and Davis, Wynton Marsalis has become one of the best-selling jazz artists of the last half of the twentieth century. At last count, he recorded 33 albums on the label. And while Monk wasn't appreciated in his time, Columbia's perspicacity in recording him now is paying off as interest in his work has mushroomed. You have to hand it to Columbia's producers like John Hammond, Teo Macero or Steve Epstein for spotting promising talent early in their careers.
Sweeping through Marsalis' recordings from 1985 (not quite from the beginning of his tenure with Columbia) to even this year, The Best Of Wynton Marsalis is notable not for its variety as much as for its consistency. The title track, "Jig's Jig," even though it's from 1988, instantly comes across as a Wynton Marsalis composition and performance. All of the trademark elements are there--the New Orleans street drumming, the cleanly articulated trumpet lines, the interwoven background horns and the spirited solos by Marsalis' now-well-known associates. Indeed, throughout the 16 years represented by the album, all of the drumming is done by Herlin Riley or Jeff "Tain" Watts, while the piano chair is filled by either Eric Reed or Marcus Roberts (with the exception of Kenny Kirkland and Marsalis' present pianist Farid Barron).
Yet, throughout the album, it becomes noticeable that the rhythm section really carries the tunes. The acknowledged virtuosity of Wynton Marsalis on trumpet gets lost in comical muted call-and-response effects on "Root Groove," as if he were excessively taken by his hero Ellington's use of the device. Rather than building a solo, his work becomes just that--a device. Even on "I Got Lost In Her Arms," Marsalis, playing to string accompaniment, rarely veers from the melody as he injects drama into the performance by the use of vibrato and rising and falling dynamics over a single whole note. Marsalis' "Sunflowers" from his Marciac Suite CD becomes a tambourine-jangling and hand-clapping uplift of Miles Davis' "All Blues," the minor-keyed blues brightened by sunnier changes.
Marsalis' popular Standard Time albums are represented as well. In fact, the songs from those albums are the only ones on The Best Of Wynton Marsalis that aren't his original compositions. While all three of the Standard Time tunes follow the same concept, Standard Time, Vol. 1 with Ellis Marsalis perhaps is the most interesting album with the family connection, the young Wynton reigned in for an exploration of the ballad form championed by his father. Yet, we're given too little of Ellis Marsalis on the two-and-a-half-minute track.
Surprisingly, Marsalis' Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Blood In The Fields, isn't represented. The most adventurous work on The Best Of Wynton Marsalis ends up as the now-easily-recognized "Black Codes," which features his brother Branford and now-deceased pianist Kenny Kirkland in what became Wynton's last explorative group before Sting stole Branford for his group and before Wynton began to replicate Ellington.
Yet, Wynton Marsalis' output is amazingly prodigious, and his influence on jazz, while controversial, can't be denied. Wynton Marsalis has become one of the present-day jazz giants as the result of creative productivity, Lincoln Center affiliation, record company support, band member loyalty and consistency of vision.