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Capturing a lost period

Unforgiveable Blackness: Original Soundtrack Recording
Unforgiveable Blackness: Original Soundtrack Recording
By Wynton Marsalis

Blue Note Records: 2004

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This review first appeared in the Autumn 2004 issue of Turbula.

When Ken Burns produced his television opus, "Jazz," trumpeter and former wunderkind Wynton Marsalis was one of the most prominent on-camera presences – dispensing his views on the history of jazz, the greatest players, the most compelling performances.

And so it is really little surprise to find Burns and Marsalis collaborating in a more formal vein, with Marsalis providing the score to Burns' latest project, "Unforgiveable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson."

The story of the first black heavyweight boxing champ in American history, "Unforgiveable Blackness" follows Jackson's triumphs and travails in the first half of the 20th Century.

Given the time frame and the racial overtones of the story (plus Johnson's own musical predelictions), there is no better music to accompany the film than traditional jazz – and this is indeed the approach Marsalis has taken. But rather than simply re-recording old standards from that period, Marsalis has composed a whole swath of new songs – with a handful of period standards.

The theme of the soundtrack is the "Jack Johnson Two-Step," written by Marsalis and performed three times. It's an old-timey New Orleans-styled jazz number that could have come from an old Louis Armstrong or Sydney Bechet 78. And "High Society" (also from Marsalis' pen) has the feel of a calliope on a carousel for the first couple dozen measures before breaking out into a swinging hot jazz number.

Other numbers have a similarly vintage air to them, although all sound fresh and invigorated – due in no small part to the stellar crew Marsalis assembled for these sessions. With Hernan Riley on drums, Eric Reed on piano, Victor Goines on sax and clarinet and Wycliffe Gordon on trombone, this is as tight a band as one could want.