Apparently Wynton Marsalis’ ambition — some might call it chutzpah — has no bounds. Fresh from his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Blood on The Fields,” he tried to place himself in the pantheon with Igor Stravinsky, no less, with what amounted to a rewrite of the latter’s traveling theatre piece “L’Histoire du Soldat” (The Story of a Soldier). Alas, it is a feeble rewrite, little more than a scrambled paraphrase of one of the most invigorating pieces in the classical repertoire, with a grating new text to match.
From his secure perch as artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Marsalis was able to draw upon both the classical and jazz divisions of the institution, teaming classical players with others who are equally proficient in both classical and jazz. He wrote his new work “A Fiddler’s Tale” for the same seven-piece ensemble that Strav-insky used in “L’Histoire” and prefaced it with a complete performance of the Stravinsky.
Yet in trying to pay tribute to Stravinsky, much of the time Marsalis negated many of his own strengths — the willingness to swing, his by-now-distinctive brass voicings — in favor of some crabbed reorderings and elabora-tions of the notes in Stravinsky’s original. There was lots of skill on display in the writing but little life in the counterthemes and on-and-off rhythms, aside from an occasional sly jazz groove and snatches of Marsalis’ scorching plunger-muted trumpet.
The new storyline, a tale of an idealistic yet upwardly-mobile female violinist who allegedly sells out her mu-sic to the Devil — a record company executive with the initials B.Z.B. — should come as no surprise to those who know the work of its author Stanley Crouch, who has been harping on this theme for years as Marsalis’ annotator and occasional collaborator. But Marsalis’ score wasn’t any help in illuminating the text as narrated by actor Andre De Shields. Weirdly enough, the piece’s finale, “The Blues On Top” — where the Devil triumphs — is the liveliest, most inspired episode in the whole score, making a mockery of Crouch’s point that playing com-mercial music is the Devil’s work.
The performance of Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire” was a surprising disappointment, for there was hardly any rhythmic lift and snap from an ensemble partially staffed by jazzers. Marsalis himself was the most alert player on the stage, peeling off quintuplets and the tricky shifting meters of the trumpet part with the ease of a virtuoso. The ensemble could have used a conductor as a traffic cop and rallying point — as well as separate actors for the roles of the Devil and Soldier instead of relying on narrator De Shields for everything.
Yet even so, Stravinsky’s masterpiece felt like a splash of cold, bracing, sparkling water next to Marsalis’ fizzless brew.