By turns soothing, urgent, playful, and angry, From the Plantation to the Penitentiary distills Marsalis' recent observations on our modern American way of life as he's traveled the nation as a performer, teacher, and private citizen. Through the sultry alto of 21-year old singer Jennifer Sanon, he gives voice to the tattered ragmen of America in Find Me, rebukes our misogynistic entertainment industry I ain't no bitch and I ain't your ho in The Return of Romance, and denounces the uncontrolled financial exploitation of modern America in which there's never enough in the frantic Super Capitalism. The most striking track on the album is Where Y'a At?, a rare spoken-word vocal performance by Marsalis, in which he demands to know what's happened to all the responsible leaders in America.The album has its bright moments as well: the languid These Are Those Soulful Days was inspired by the friendship between his 10-year old son and Walter Blanding's 11-year old twin daughters that the three have maintained almost since birth, while the bouncy and soulful instrumental Doin' Our Thing lets Marsalis and his band interpret various types of 4/4 grooves anchored, of course, by the swing.The seven tracks on the album are all new compositions, with lyrics and music by Wynton Marsalis, four of which feature vocalist Jennifer Sanon. Walter Blanding (reeds), Dan Nimmer (piano), Carlos Henriquez (bass), and Ali Jackson (drums) round out the quintet.
"We running all over the world with a blunderbuss/And the Constitution all but forgot in the fuss," Wynton Marsalis declaims on "Where Y'All At?"--the raucous theatrical finale to From the Plantation to the Penitentiary
. As unusual as it may be for the celebrated trumpeter to present himself as a kind of soap box rapper, underwhelmingly taking aim at "supercapitalists," liberals, and rappers alike, the most notable departure here is his prominent feature of a vocalist, young Jennifer Sanon. A winner of the Essentially Ellington high school competition, she has real appeal and is smart, silky-toned, and calmly assured beyond her 21 years. The influence of the mighty Abbey Lincoln is felt in both the directness of her delivery and the soulful expansiveness of the music, performed by a quintet. Though Marsalis gets his time in the spotlight, playing with brittle strength as well as his customary warmth, he is generous in shining a spotlight on his bandmates, including a pair of talented up-and-comers in pianist Dan Nimmer and bassist Carlos Henriquez, drummer Ali Jackson, Jr. and saxophonist Walter Blanding, who, 15 years after being introduced on the "Tough Young Tenors" album and in spite of his stellar contributions to Marsalis' Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, doesn't get the attention he should. --Lloyd Sachs