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Rhythm & Views

Wynton Marsalis

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Hearing the name Wynton Marsalis, I used to think, "Starbucks music." No more. From the Plantation to the Penitentiary is a searing, heartbreaking indictment of America, and an often hilarious reflection on how its faded glory, broken promise and destructive greed have affected blacks for the worse--and how blacks shrugged at freedoms that were theirs for the taking.

Marsalis assembles a stellar band--Walter Blanding on tenor and soprano sax, pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Carlos Henriquez, drummer Ali Jackson Jr. and the stunning new talent of Jennifer Sanon, who displays every vocal style from Ella Fitzgerald to Julie London. And with Stanley Crouch's notes and Jessica Benjamin's paintings, the album's packaging kills.

The title track kicks off in 6/4 time, Marsalis and Blanding pushing the melodic groove into near-cacophony as Sanon allows lyrics (written by Marsalis) like "from the yassuh boss / to the ghetto minstrelsy" to simmer with elegant fury. The Cuban habanera of "Find Me" is a gorgeous apocalypse, with Marsalis' trumpet runs slashing fighter jets against a blood-red sunset. "I see starving people screaming / Crushed as we rush on our way," sings Sanon, her perfect intonation giving the listener the odd sense of being in a lounge at the end of the world.

Other surprising moments: the speed-metal swing of "Supercapitalism" and the pseudo-rap of "Where Y'all At?" featuring Marsalis in street-corner-proselytizer mode. But it's the ballad "Love and Broken Hearts" that shows why our era's junk--misogynist hip-hop, Wal-Mart worship, war--matters: "It's time for the return of romance," croons Sanon. Amen.

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