The most amazing thing about Wynton Marsalis' appearance at the Orange County Performing Art Center on Sunday night was the fact that the brilliant young trumpeter--the most visible new jazz musician of the '80s--played virtually nothing that could have startled anyone.
To his credit, Marsalis' solo work was astonishingly articulate. With technique to burn, he clearly can play anything he wants, from long, low register held notes to rapid whirls through the brass stratosphere.
But Marsalis' repertoire, as well as the rather cursory way in which he approached it, left more to be desired. The first half of the program, for example, included five selections, four of which were blues-based.
On the face of it--no problem. Except that, once past the intriguing lines of pieces like Marsalis' "Toy Soldiers" and Thelonious Monk's "Ba-Lue, Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are," the improvisations offered little more than crisp, competent, but wholly predictable soloing. Only pianist Marcus Roberts escaped the limits of the 12-bar form (especially on the Monk tune) with his flashy rhythmic slips and slides around the keyboard.
The post-intermission program--similarly unadventurous--included five standards, ranging from "Just Friends" to "Autumn Leaves," with an attractive set of variations on "In a Sentimental Mood" by tenor saxophonist Todd Williams. Again, the stress seemed to be on familiarity of material, with highly structured, somewhat dry improvising.
What emerged from this conservatively oriented program, performed before a conservative audience in a conservative venue, was a strong sense of Marsalis as a preserver of tradition. (The best example of that conscious conservatism, by the way, was a high-velocity rendition of "Cherokee" in which Marsalis took off with the acceleration of a dragster, while pianist Roberts carefully, and simultaneously, stated the melody in ringing octaves.)
There is, of course, nothing wrong with reexamining material from the past. But jazz at its best is a spontaneous, impromptu art in which players are constantly testing and measuring themselves against the immediacy of the real world around them. Somehow, as well-crafted as Marsalis' music may have been, one too often had the oddly anachronistic feeling of listening to a performance that virtually ignored the last 25 years of both jazz and social evolution.