Wynton Marsalis He Merges Worlds of Jazz and Classical, to Great Effect

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BEING ONE of America's most versatile musicians will win you a good deal of respect in most circles. By the same token, versatility can also make you an attractive target, as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis has learned.

Jealous jazz players, especially those of the avant-garde persuasion, occasionally take the 33-year-old virtuoso to task for being too "traditional" - for tending to the roots of a musical form they insist demands constant invention. Some of those jazz performers also wonder aloud, now and then, why Wynton continues to devote some of his time to classical (i.e., European-derived) music.

And over on the classical side, conductors and other insiders have expressed bewilderment at the notion that a man with Marsalis' superior technique could more or less abandon that form as far as live performances are concerned.

Although he continues to make classical recordings - his latest album features trumpet concertos by Haydn, Hummel and Leopold Mozart (with the London Concert conducted by former St. Louis Symphony Orchestra principal guest conductor Raymond Leppard) - Marsalis dramatically scaled back his activities in the classical domain in the late '80s to concentrate more on jazz.

In the face of the ire that flies at him from various points on the musical compass, Marsalis seems to maintain a fairly even temperament. He refuses to buy into notions of musical exclusivity.

"Sophistication is sophistication," he insists. "And it comes in any form, be it European, African, Caribbean, Chinese, Japanese . . . I travel all around the world. I know musicians in every culture by name.

"Now if anybody thinks that the tradition of Bach and Beethoven and Haydn and Debussy and Mozart can be disrespected, or that it goes against the traditions of African music - or that it goes against any other world traditions - they are sadly mistaken. All these traditions in music can work together."

Currently the jazz director of New York's Lincoln Center, Marsalis will present a brand-new band, the Wynton Marsalis Septet, Sunday night at Powell Hall.

Asked whether the quartet will in any way echo the traditional jazz inclinations of his celebrated septet, which appeared at Powell Hall three years ago, the trumpeter senses yet another musical red flag being hoisted.

"Of course, the music will always be reflected in the musicians in the band," he responds evenly. …