Thursday, November 12, 2009

Take your time

Wynton Marsalis, the trumpeter, jazz bandleader and composer, again has postponed the premiere of his "Blues Symphony" with the Atlanta Symphony. The premiere, originally planned for last summer, was rescheduled twice, most recently for Nov. 19; but the piece remains unfinished.

The plan now is a January premiere of two completed movements (out of a planned seven), and perhaps one or two others now in draft form, Pierre Ruhe reports at artscriticATL (the collective website of former Atlanta Journal-Constitution critics):

The history of art-music composition is littered with blown deadlines, stray movements of works that never came together, rewrites (sometimes wholesale) of pieces whose flaws were revealed in first performances – and, of course, that nice batch of unfinished opuses by brand-name composers (Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mussorgsky, Bruckner, Mahler, Puccini, Berg) that sustains a cottage industry of musicological "completers."

A less high-falutin, and larger, industry of composer's helpers employs the orchestrators who produce the finished versions of film soundtracks and musicals (at least those that still use orchestras). Composers are cagey about acknowledging such help; but much of the music you hear at the movies or in musicals was conceived by the composer and largely fleshed out by someone else.

I don't know whether Marsalis works with helpers. Presumably he has someone to do finished copies of parts and other mundane stuff; but I can only guess about hands-on collaboration with an arranger or orchestrator. My guess is, no.

What I've heard of Marsalis' concert music sonically mirrors the personality of the man: A jangly energy kept under fairly tight control, a mind and personality that thrive on multiple stimuli and overlapping lines of thought. There's a lot going on in there. His performances and his compositions tend to be exclamatory, brightly colored, often episodic and abruptly shifting in mood or atmospherics, sometimes almost baroque in their busyness. If some helper is producing the orchestrations, that person is channeling Marsalis' personality with uncanny exactness.

Reconciling this creative personality to the blues couldn't be easy. This is not necessarily a slow music, but it is unhurried. "Take your time," or words to that effect, can be heard in countless old recordings of blues; its sibling, gospel; and its offspring, rhythm and blues. Whatever its stated tempo, the tune needs time to ripen emotionally. Its voices must have space to be expressive. Rush it, and all you've got is a dance tune with a lot of flatted notes.

I hope Marsalis takes his time with the "Blues Symphony." If he's looking for help, I recommend Fletcher Henderson, Ferde Grofé, Thelonious Monk, Maurice Ravel and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.