The classical career of celebrated jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis began with major fanfare with his 1984 recording of the Haydn and Hummel trumpet concertos with the English Chamber Orchestra. The momentum carried Marsalis through some high-profile concertizing and through the three albums included in this box set. One might say things fizzled out after that; Marsalis gave only occasional performances of mainstream classical repertoire after about the 1990s. Or one might say Marsalis was stimulated toward large-scale musical thinking by his encounter with classical concert music; he went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for his three-hour vocal work, Blood on the Fields.
At any rate, this set collects out-of-print material of interest to Marsalis fans or to anyone wondering what all the hoopla was about. Three discs are reissued. The London Concert consists of a live performance of the two concertos from his classical debut album, with assorted other works (including a few bonus tracks that wouldn't fit on the original LP). Baroque Duet pairs Marsalis with soprano Kathleen Battle in arias by Handel and other composers. And In Gabriel's Garden is a collection of Baroque trumpet showpieces. Two general impressions emerge from a new hearing of these recordings. First is that Marsalis is indeed a distinctive classical trumpeter. He often said he had to relearn the instrument in order to take on classical repertoire, and no doubt that was true at one level. But his playing is undoubtedly shaped by his jazz background -- not in terms of rhythm, not in terms of improvisation (as we will see), but in his sheer, smooth melodism, his creamy tone, and extremely attractive legato. His performances of the Haydn and Hummel concertos remain among the best available, and the live disc included here captures his approach as well as the better-known studio recording.
The second impression begins with the observation that, ironically enough, some of the rare criticism Marsalis received during this period contended that he did not improvise enough. But this was probably not his decision; he was not working in a tradition of authentic performance of Baroque music, but with the high-profile English Chamber Orchestra. One comes away from these discs wondering what might have happened (or what might still happen) if Marsalis, instead of working within the sphere of the major-label distribution system, had joined with the one of the early music specialists who were restoring to Baroque music its proper sensuous surface. The least successful of these three discs is In Gabriel's Garden, in which the English Chamber Orchestra is led by the idiosyncratic Anthony Newman. (The Battle disc, with the Orchestra of St. Luke's, fares better but depends on listeners' subjective reactions to the singer.) Due to the major-label nature of these projects, Marsalis worked in a tradition that was not the ideal one for making use of his unusual talent. Some recent press reports have portrayed Marsalis as casting about for new endeavors. If this is so, one might venture the suggestion that he attend some early music concerts and see what comes of it.