Picks and Pans Review: Soul Gestures in Southern Blue

updated 09/16/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/16/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Wynton Marsalis

Ponce de Leon never found the Fountain of Youth, but jazz did, and it spouts indigo.

Marsalis' three-album exploration of the blues celebrates the joy and profundity in that inexhaustible form. The 16 compositions—13 by the leader—pay abstract tribute to several kinds of blues-tinged heroes: historical (Harriet Tubman), musical (the drummer Elvin Jones, who plays on Vol. I) and mythical (the Uptown Ruler, a spiritual healer and wise man who is a legend in New Orleans, Marsalis' hometown). The albums show how malleable the blues continue to be: This is music as sophisticated as it is soulful.

The best way to appreciate the consistency and depth of Soul Gestures in Southern Blue is to hear it straight through. (You'll need an evening, preferably after a payday: Each volume is priced as a single disc.) On beautiful performances by Marsalis—his solos shapely and heartfelt—and his gifted colleagues, the three discs flow together like one unbroken album.

Volume I, Thick in the South, features the robust Joe Henderson on tenor sax, along with Marsalis vets Marcus Roberts (piano), Bob Hurst (bass) and Jeff Watts (drums). (Jones is on two cuts.) Volume II, Uptown Ruler, is performed by Marsalis' quintet—Roberts, Todd Williams (sax), Reginald Veal (bass) and Herlin Riley (drums). Vol. Ill, Levee Low Moan, adds saxophonist Wessell Anderson.

As teacher, composer, bandleader, trumpeter and consultant (for Lincoln Center's jazz department), Marsalis, 29, has proven to be as imaginative and perspicacious as he is prolific. He is, in fact, so prolific that by the time he gets around to releasing his albums, they're almost time capsules. This set was recorded in 1987-88. But the music hasn't at all gone stale in the can.

So how do you choose among the three discs, if you're not ready to splurge? With its down-home grooves and dancing horns, Levee, the third volume, delights instantly. The first two take longer to crack, but their treasures in the end may be richer.

Thick is forceful, cerebral, sensual. Uptown, more introspective, may also be the most ambitious—not just the middle album but the project's spiritual fulcrum. If none of this helps, just close your eyes and grab one. You can't go wrong. (Columbia)

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