“I ain’t your bitch, I ain’t your ho,” cries out vocalist Jennifer Sanon in a style reminiscent of Billie Holliday. The sentiment defines “Love and Broken Hearts,” an attack on hip-hop culture from trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’ new release, “From the Plantation to the Penitentiary.” Sanon grieves the decline of the love song and the rise of “modern day minstrels” with “songless tunes,” who emphasize sex over romance.
It isn’t the first time Marsalis has used music to foster social discussion. “Blood on the Fields,” his 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio, explored the history of slavery and his 1999 chamber work “A Fiddler’s Tale” leveled biting sarcasm at musicians who “sell their soul” to the corporate “devil” that is the music industry.
But none of this history can prepare listeners for the vicious social and political criticism of “From the Plantation to the Penitentiary.”
In addition to the misogyny of the hip-hop culture, Marsalis’ targets include racism, the hypocrisy of liberal students and faded 1960’s activists, American greed, and the failures of leadership in the post-9/11 world.
The album’s high points come in the first and last tracks. The hip modality of “From the Plantation to the Penitentiary,” the opening song, evokes the soaring beauty of “Blood on the Fields” as Sanon laments the status of black America. “In the land of freedom, in chains / In the land of freedom, insane,” she bellows.
In the final song, “Where Y’all At?,” Marsalis himself delivers a poetic diatribe against modern American life. Under his shouts, the band lays into a bluesy New Orleans groove and a chorus echoes his lines as if he were preaching to a gospel church. “It can’t all be blamed on the party of Lincoln,” Marsalis howls. “The left and the right have got the country stinkin’.”
Marsalis is already a controversial musician, facing resentment in the jazz community from those who think he disrespects more modern currents of contemporary jazz. The album will give these critics more to resent.
The bold advance is the message, not the music. Beyond “Where Y’All At?,” the compositions don’t take untraveled roads. Marsalis borrows heavily from the same motifs and melodic texturing he’s been using for 15 years. He’s a talented writer, but the recycled ideas leave the work sounding unimaginative.
The energy of the band’s performance often can’t live up to the grandeur of the expectations the album sets for itself. “Find Me” and “These Are Those Soulful Days” are lethargic, and Marsalis’ improvisations don’t push the limits of his virtuosity. Saxophonist Walter Blanding and pianist Dan Nimmer struggle to excite.
In spite of the record’s provocative message, Marsalis keeps many tracks mellow, even cheerful, making listeners cry out for more passion and grit.
But it is important to recognize Marsalis’ daring. “From the Plantation to the Penitentiary” is a risky move that should attract heightened controversy. This is his first album made in the wake of the devastation Hurricane Katrina brought to his hometown.
The deep disenchantment that followed seems to have driven him to seek to do even more with his existing musical style, whatever the consequences.