On the playlist this week, a jazz luminary ponders the current state of affairs in black America; a pop-folk veteran dives into the blues; and a much-hyped 23-year-old British soul singer unabashedly evokes the '60s.
Wynton Marsalis, From the Plantation to the Penitentiary: With each release, Marsalis works to push his approach. "It's important that you can produce something that's honest and full of good information," the New Orleans trumpeter told me in a 2004 interview. With his latest effort, Marsalis proves that he is a man of his word: This provocatively titled album ripples with truth and gives listeners much to think about.
The opening track, which rolls on for nearly 12 minutes, is the title cut, and it sets the tone for the album. Featuring the vibrato-free, glass-clear vocals of 20-year-old newcomer Jennifer Sanon, "From the Plantation to the Penitentiary" loosely ponders the perpetuation of oppression in black America, from slavery to the self-destructive ways of the ghetto: From the work long days/To the dope and drinking craze/From the stock in slaves/To the booming prison trade/In the name of freedom ... insane.
Throughout the CD, Marsalis, who wrote all the lyrics, doesn't seem obsessed with the music's direction. But that doesn't mean the record is sloppy. Despite the heaviness of its lyrical scope - the effects of oppression, excessive consumerism, poisonous ideologies glorified in hip-hop - From the Plantation is one of the trumpeter's most accessible albums. The interplay among Marsalis, Walter Blanding (tenor and soprano saxophones), Dan Nimmer (piano), Carlos Hendriquez (bass) and Ali Jackson Jr. (drums) is smart and free-flowing. Winding through it all is Sanon's warm, melodic voice, which recalls Blossom Dearie with just a hint of a young Carmen McRae. She's especially moving on the indigo-shaded "Find Me" and the romance-starved "Love and Broken Hearts."
But the standout cut features the vocals of Marsalis. On the swinging "Where Y'all At?" - the last number on the seven-track album - the trumpeter morphs into a fiery spoken-word artist, questioning black '60s radicals who have sold out themselves and the community: We supposed to symbolize freedom and pride/But we got scared after King and the Kennedys died/We take corruption and graft in stride/Sittin' around like owls talkin' 'bout Who? Who lied ...
From a musical standpoint, From the Plantation to the Penitentiary isn't one of Marsalis' most experimental efforts. But it's well-grounded and deeply personal and certainly one of his most captivating albums.
Joan Armatrading, Into the Blues: There is something so wise and pure in Armatrading's voice. And on this, her 19th album, the eclectic pop-folk veteran explores the blues. But she isn't going all Koko Taylor on us, letting loose with gutbucket abandon. In fact, nothing about the production differs drastically from Armatrading's usual approach. The music is uncluttered, the lyrics thoughtful. Only this time, the singer-songwriter colors each of the 13 songs with pastel shades of the blues - not so much vocally but with nimble, impressive lines from her electric guitar. She's no Rosetta Tharpe (could there ever be another one?), but Armatrading is spirited throughout. Highlights include the slightly jazz-tinged "A Woman in Love" and the fun, funky "D.N.A."
Amy Winehouse, Back to Black: The buzz on this British chick has been strong for months. Across the pond in her native country where she's already a star, the press seems to spend as much time chronicling her rowdy, alcohol-fueled behavior as praising her distinctive, soul-jazz vocals. Last month, Teresa Wiltz at The Washington Post profiled Winehouse, revealing a troubled young artist. On her American debut, the singer-songwriter is brutally honest about her drama. "Rehab," the catchy lead single, delves into her refusal to seek professional help: They tried to make me go to rehab/I said no no no.
On Back to Black, producer Mark Ronson surrounds Winehouse's thick, slightly affected vocals with layered, horns-and-strings arrangements, underpinned at times by a pronounced hip-hop beat. Much of it is evocative of Motown and Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, driven by a brashness that could only come from someone born after 1980. But is Winehouse the Next Big Thing? I'm not sold. Although her style is more soul-steeped than that of her British contemporaries Joss Stone and Lily Allen, Winehouse isn't always convincing. For instance, she sounds unfocused and downright bored on "Love Is a Losing Game," and the '60s girl-group production is too derivative and quickly wears thin.
But the album is less than 40 minutes, so it isn't torturous. Plus, here and there the CD is dotted with impressive cuts, including the lovers-rock-influenced "Just Friends" and the sublime "He Can Only Hold Her." Despite its shortcomings, Back to Black is a decent showcase for Winehouse. Let's hope she gets it together and follows it up with something tighter and more original.
To hear clips from Marsalis' album, go to baltimoresun.com/listeningpost.