black codes +30

I had the CD of Wynton Marsalis’s “Black Codes (From The Underground)” in my car for a few days, and even though I’ve listened to it off and on since 1985, I think this was the first time I really heard just how good an album it is.

I chalk it up to 30 years going by. Back when “Black Codes” came out, there was a big controversy about Marsalis and what he represented – a kind of counter-reformation in jazz that seemed to threaten the very good, but harder for the average person to listen to, jazz that came out of the 1970s, what people generally call the “loft jazz” movement. Marsalis struck a lot of people as a dead end, with his veneration for the jazz that had come before him, his insistence that the past represented the one true way.

Well, I’m sure he wouldn’t put it exactly the same way now, and one of his main points – that you have to submit to the discipline of an art form in order to master it, and that listeners should pay more attention to forms which require such mastery – is less threatening and more appreciated these days. Marsalis himself is a genial older statesman for a music that has disappeared into the academy – jazz is now safely one of America’s great cultural treasures, everyone agrees, and maybe the poorer for it.

None of which touches “Black Codes,” which is generally regarded as a successor to Miles Davis’s mid-60s quintet – and maybe it is, but coming back to the album, I hear something slightly different. As much as I love the second great quintet, I don’t remember many of the melodies – some of Wayne Shorter’s classics being the exception, though even then I tend to remember other versions more easily. Maybe I’m just not musical, but my favorite second quintet recording has always been the “Plugged Nickel” set, because its largely standards-based repertoire gives me something to hang my hat on. And I have huge affection for the music Miles made right before the second quintet, the “Seven Steps To Heaven” era, because of both the covers and the memorable originals, and because the band had not quite reached the stratosphere. It played brilliantly, at high altitudes, but you could still see the ground.

And that’s where I think “Black Codes” fits, if you’re talking historical precedent. But the more I listen, the more I think the best way to approach this music, this band, is on its own terms. If “Black Codes” reflected lessons learned, those lessons were thoroughly absorbed and made original. “Black Codes,” the title, is a declaration of purpose, a band lighting out for the territory; “For Wee Folks” is an utterly distinctive ballad; “Phryzzinian Man” and “Delfeayo’s Dilemma” swing like mad and after 30 years sound completely in the moment.

The closer, “Blues,” just Marsalis and bass, sounds far more traditional than the rest of the album, and to the degree that you think Marsalis is diminished by his years dwelling in pre-bop jazz, it may feel like the tipping point, though he had already recorded a “with strings” album and was showing every sign his muse wasn’t confined to 1945 and after.  That said, in the context of “Black Codes” it’s more than fine – and Marsalis followed this album with another that was at least as good, “J Mood.”

One other point: jazz, like novel writing or portrait painting, is feature-complete, has been for decades, and for a while was prey to the arguments of post-modernism.  “Black Codes” came out in 1985, right in the heart of the long post-modern moment, in which the line was “everything’s exhausted, there’s no more innovation, and all that’s left is to stack the blocks in different combinations.” The smart money – I’ll put Marsalis in that camp – never believed that in the first place, and looking back, one of the virtues of “Black Codes” was the way it demonstrated craft and care while it refused irony, refused to know too much. That strength made “Black Codes” durable and deserving of a place high up on the shelf of best jazz albums.

(Note to Columbia/SONY: It’s time to give “Black Codes” and “J Mood” the deluxe treatment. I think Marsalis peaked here, and these are great jazz albums. I’d like to hear more.”)


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