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by Seth Colter Walls

May 15, 2014

Jazz 101: Young Lions

by Seth Colter Walls  |  May 15, 2014

Jazz history is massive enough at this point to be a touch intimidating. With so many box sets and so many compilations to choose from, where to start? We've got you covered, era by era, with our Jazz 101 series, which you can follow here. Each daily playlist offers up five-star performances, and tips you off to albums with plenty more gold left to explore after the intro course is over. Enjoy.

Steeped in the New Orleans blues tradition from birth and schooled in Art Blakey's hard-bop academy as a young adult, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis arrived, in the early 1980s, as a bandleader assured beyond his years. His rigorously sharp and tasteful tone matched his aesthetic: Famously uninterested in the avant-garde and fusion trends that had captivated jazz's opinion-leaders for the past decade and a half, the Marsalis brand heralded a return to what the trumpeter considered the essential building blocks of jazz: namely, blues and swing -- preferably played acoustically.

You can agree or disagree with the hard-line position on experimental and plugged-in forms of jazz, but you cannot dispute Wynton's expertise with his chosen tools. Early albums like Black Codes (From the Underground) and Live at Blues Alley reveal 1980s neo-hard-bop as a ferociously swinging affair. The excitement is in no small measure due to drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts, who also supported Wynton's saxophone-playing brother, Branford Marsalis, on some early, path-breaking records. Pianist Kenny Kirkland shines on many of these outings as well (including his self-titled album as a leader). Check the improvisational fire and compositional crispness on all the tracks in the appended playlist.

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