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Despite talent, Marsalis disappoints at Berklee

THE WYNTON MARSALIS BAND

At the Berklee Performance Center.

Thursday, Nov. 8, at 8 pm.

By DAVID ROTHSTEIN

THE KNOCK ON 29-year-old jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis is twofold: He is cocky to a fault, and he has yet to discover a sound that is truly his own. Marsalis did little to lessen either of these accusations when he appeared last Thursday at the Berklee Performance Center in a benefit concert. Although the man is, without a doubt, immensely talented, his performance with the seven-piece Wynton Marsalis Band was disappointing.

The band's first piece, "On the Eve of Entry," was supposed to be about a man and a woman on the night before their marriage, Marsalis told the audience in his husky voice. This met with oohs and aahs from the assembled, many of whom had paid up to $75 to raise money for the Middle Passage Voyage fund, which is to send 20 high school students from around New England on an educational sailing tour from the Caribbean back to Boston.

The piano trickled an introduction, leading to the opening in sweet dissonance by the four assembled brassmen: trumpet, alto and soprano saxophones, and trombone. The foursome soon split, leaving Marsalis alone on the stage, playing the trumpet with a mute to a strong bass beat.

Marsalis had great volume control, but his growling at times sounded more like a baby's irritated gurgling than the music of the 1920s and 1930s upon which he was apparently expanding. The audience would have been better served with a recording of Louis Armstrong and the classic growler, Bubber Miley, in this case.

Marsalis followed with "In the Court of King Oliver" and a tune from the recently released movie, Tune in Tomorrow, for which Marsalis wrote the score, titled "Pedro's Getaway."

After the evening's fourth piece, in which Marsalis' New Orleans roots came through loud and clear, Marsalis introduced "The Majesty of Blues" by telling the audience that "we always try to play a wide variety of music, so that we can learn what we're doing."

This sort of introduction usually precedes the experimental, which is certainly what the audience got. The Marsalis Band proceeded with a piece full of wailing and embellishments, flattened and sharpened tones from all involved, a chuckling trombone, a wavering trumpet. The audience's response was muted, but the piece was original.

Marsalis was perhaps at his best in the next song, George Gershwin's "Embraceable You." This was vintage Marsalis in the trumpet solo. He demonstrated his enviable range and ability to hit notes, loud and soft. He was best away from the microphone, as his notes cut through the air, supported by a quiet bass and just a hint of drums and piano.

The audience was mesmerized -- at least until the very end of Marsalis' last long run, when collected moisture began to rasp in the trumpet's tubing.

Three pieces by Duke Ellington followed: "Take the Blues and Go," "Midnight in Paris," and "Happy Reunion," the last featuring happy call-and-responses between the clarinet and trumpet, and the trombone and alto saxophone.

Marsalis introduced the last piece, by Jelly Roll Morton, saying that the band wanted to "go back and remind ourselves about what we're doing: playing jazz."

"The Jungle Blues" featured some great clarinet riffs, and left this reviewer wondering why Marsalis did not allow the clarinetist and the trombonist more latitude in their soloing; both were particularly good when they let loose.

Marsalis dedicated the concert to "my homeboy [in the audience], and everybody else who are homeboys in the universal sense."

Right.