Richard Pryor once said of going to prison, "They send black men to jail for justice, and that's what we find when we get there — just us!"
The idea of the continuing racial divide is what Wynton Marsalis has in mind on his latest album, "From the Plantation to the Penitentiary" (Blue Note) which is, in many ways, a major departure from anything he has previously done. Mr. Marsalis probably will perform some of this music tonight when he makes his annual concert appearance with his sextet at Rose Hall, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center (which he is sharing with his fellow New Orleans native, the pianist Dr. John). Coincidentally, on the same evening that Mr. Marsalis is playing his new work, the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra will offer a retrospective of the most memorable compositions of Mr. Marsalis's career in Alice Tully Hall.
Mr. Marsalis often has been perceived as a musical conservative; he was he was the first young musician of this era to advocate bebop (and later swing and New Orleans style) rather the fusion and postmodern styles. (Of course it was rather daring in 1980, when he emerged, to reject the contemporary trend of trashing the past.) He has occasionally addressed racial themes, most notably in "Blood on the Fields," his full-length, oratorio-like work on the subject of slavery.
But apparently, ever since he was forced to watch as Hurricane Katrina transformed his hometown into the world's largest sewer, Mr. Marsalis has taken license to say what's on his mind, and express it, for the first time, in music and lyrics.
The titular opening track shows what Mr. Marsalis is thinking. In a a caustic indictment of 150 years of black history, he suggests his people are still being held in a kind of slavery, one that is partly their own fault. They live "in the heart of freedom, in chains" and in a world where "raggly public schools" lead "to the unemployment line." Where blacks were once kept in servitude by chains, now they are enslaved by "dope and drink." He also equates the economics of slavery with "the booming prison trade" of today.
Although Mr. Marsalis's new music has echoes of Charles Mingus, who was perhaps jazz's most politically driven figure, "From the Plantation" reminds me much more frequently of Marvin Gaye's classic soul record of 1971, "What's Going On"; like Gaye, Mr. Marsalis conveys an eco-political message through a series of well-crafted songs. For this project, the trumpeter uses a sextet, including four fellow members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra: the saxophonist Walter Blandings, the pianist Dan Nimmer, the bassist Carlos Henriquez, and the drummer Ali Jackson. The sixth member of the sextet is Jennifer Sanon, a young vocalist and discovery of Mr. Marsalis's who has appeared at several JALC events. Ms. Sanon is a singer with considerable chops. Her remarkably rich, lush voice and expert intonation are reminiscent of a young Sarah Vaughan. She also has excellent intonation, though at one point I could have sworn she was singing, "Dance is the ancient snooze" instead of "Dances the ancients knew."
The downside is that every time I've seen her, Ms. Sanon has seemed uninterested in delivering a lyric or making an emotional connection with a narrative or an audience — she simply renders words and notes without telling any sort of story. This would be a drawback if she were singing Billy Strayhorn or Irving Berlin, but the effect is likely exactly what Mr. Marsalis is looking for: Snarling such scathing words as "I see women dragging souls of their womb, vanquished dreams never to be" would apparently be overkill. Mr. Marsalis seems to just want the text delivered in the subtlest way possible — he wants the power of the words to speak for themselves, as offered by a singer who is a cipher, who could be just as easily reciting stock prices or chanting recipes for gumbo.
Musically speaking, "Plantation" offers some of the finest work for Mr. Marsalis, who can often harvest more from a quintet or quartet than from a full orchestra and choir. As on his excellent score for Ken Burns's documentary about the pioneering black boxer Jack Johnson, Mr. Marsalis expertly blends minor and major and combines elements associated with different periods of jazz history. This music could be labeled New Orleans neo-bop with a touch of Ellington jungle exotica. He gives his melodies variety by casting them in different tempos and time signatures (identified in the CD booklet), from habaneras to shuffles to funk grooves.
His most romantic number, the ballad "Love and Broken Hearts," begins with a reprimand to rappers for what he describes as the barbaric, brutalizing treatment of women in their lyrics. When he addresses the racial-political divide, Mr. Marsalis doesn't entirely blame one side or one race, and like Sam Cooke in "A Change Is Gonna Come," he acknowledges that black people could do a better job of helping one another. In his accusatory "Supercapitalism," he proffers how greed causes people to forget basic human values.
Still, Mr. Marsalis seeks no easy scapegoat, reminding us that not everything "can be blamed on the Party of Lincoln."
Mr. Marsalis delivers this last bit of commentary himself on the album's finale, "Where Y'All At." Apparently, for the set's climax, he wanted just the opposite of what Ms. Sanon was capable of giving him, putting his message across in a declamatory speaking voice that's pure passion. Small wonder it's the most moving track on the disc, and "From the Plantation …" contains some of the most personal and moving music Mr. Marsalis has ever put on record. Hopefully, I'm not the only one in Harlem who's listening to it.
Mr. Marsalis will perform tonight with his quintet and Dr. John at the Rose Theater (Broadway and 60th Street, 212-721-6500).