For the past decades Wynton Marsalis has truly been the keeper of the flame, almost single handedly keeping all classic Jazz forms alive. From his arranging work for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra to his own solo records or lectures on the medium Marsalis betrays an encyclopedic knowledge of Jazz and Black history. This is as much his strength as his weakness. Marsalis is the type of artist that is mainly occupied with looking back, recapping. Although Marsalis managed to find his own unique voice on a lot his solo projects, his work is always bound by Jazz history. Marsalis is a self proclaimed purist. Jazz to him finds its ultimate expression in the acoustic setting, in the music pioneered by Ellington, Armstrong, Coltrane and Miles Davis before he went electric. In many ways Marsalis is a masterful stylist, shaping his records to be tributes and showcases of the Jazz' Golden Age.
That trade mark is also what defines From the Plantation to the Penitentiary. The record is a sociological and musical history lesson first and foremost. Applying his knowledge on both Marsalis provides a sketch of Black history and classic Jazz music. Plantation is a suite in seven movements. Opening with the title track which explains where African Americans in the US started from and how they ended up where they are now today. It's social history with biting political commentary. "In the heart of freedom.....Insane" Jennifer Sanson belts out singing slightly of key after singing the lines "from coon and shine, to the unemployment line". Marsalis draws a direct line from the abuse in the past to the predicament the Black man is in to day. That way setting the borders in which we should judge the tracks that follow. From the disconnected protagonists in Find Me to the venomous but wry criticism on capitalism should be held against that historic back drop.
Even though the record is well thought through, played with masterful skill and imagination it is in being a history lessons first and foremost where it fails to some degree. Creating music is communicating with the past as well as the present. Creating music is reaching out to the people around you, trying to get emotion across to them and in this case a sense of history and a means to position themselves in that historic backdrop. It is against this notion of making music that Marsalis' firm grasp of Jazz and Black history fails him. The record has too much the feel of an academic exercise, analytic, precise yet cold and distant. The connection to the here and now is missing, his perception on history to well polished and honed. The emotive core of the record gets beyond reach. On this record Marsalis is the lecturing professor, his means of communication a one way street from the past to the present. Marsalis is not in dialog with his surroundings, he's trying to teach his audience.
The problem of this album is ironically enough discussed by Marsalis himself on Love and Broken Hearts. This track can easily be seen as Marsalis' disdain for modern music, Hip Hop in particular. Or "you modern day minstrels and your songless tunes" as the lyric goes. Marsalis asks in this tune "How did we lose our song, when did we forget our dance, dances the ancient knew, songs the blues men blew". He forgets that Hip Hop is a continuation of that tradition rather than the abandonment of it. "Where y'all at" Marsalis asks us in the last track, but maybe it is Marsalis who fails to see we never left.