Wynton Marsalis Offers Affectionate Nod To French Town On Marciac Suite

New album is Pulitzer Prize-winning trumpeter's tribute to locale of yearly festival.

A life-size statue of Pulitzer Prize winner, trumpeter and bandleader Wynton Marsalis sits in the town square of Marciac, France — a testament to the close relationship between Marsalis and the tiny town (population 1,300), where he has played the Marciac Festival every year since 1991.

That closeness is reflected in Marsalis' newest record, The Marciac Suite, released Aug. 22 on Columbia Jazz.

"The people, the vibe and the food are just killin'," Marsalis said. "I had been working on this music for a while. ... I just love being over there."

The music that makes up this 13-part work was commissioned by festival founders, performed at Marciac in 1998 and recorded by a septet in early 1999 in New York.

"There are tunes dedicated and written about individuals associated with the festival ['Jean-Louis Is Everywhere' (RealAudio excerpt) and 'Guy Lafitte'] and compositions directed at the village itself ['Sunflowers' (RealAudio excerpt) and 'For My Kids at the College of Marciac']," Marsalis said.

The record has a happy, up feel and is chock-full of the signature Marsalis sound. Shifting meters, a wide array of key signatures and a hint of New Orleans-style music make this a pleasant listen and one of Marsalis' less somber recordings.

"It is upbeat, refreshing," said pianist Farid Barron, one of the players on the record. "That area [Marciac] is very near and dear to Wynton, which accounts for the happy tone you hear. Sadly, we only perform it when we go over to the Marciac Festival, since we seldom have an opportunity to play in the septet form."

Earlier in the summer, the band played the piece at Marciac and wished they had recorded that version. Said Barron, "We finished playing it and looked at each other and said, 'Damn, why couldn't we have played it that way on the record?' But, c'est la vie."

The album's players include Marsalis regulars Wessel "Warmdaddy" Anderson on alto, Victor Goines on saxophones and bass clarinet, Wycliffe Gordon on trombone, Herlin Riley on drums and Rodney Whitaker on bass. The piano chair is split among Barron, Cyrus Chestnut, Eric Lewis and Marcus Roberts.

"Even though he was only in the septet for a short while, we play with Cyrus all the time," Marsalis said. "It was just a matter of seeing who was available at any given time when we had decided to record this music. We had all different guys playing with us that have been there before. Listen to Marcus' solo on 'For My Kids at the College of Marciac' (RealAudio excerpt)."

Because the leader is so busy with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and a variety of other outside projects, this group had little time to prepare before going into a New York studio to make the record.

Barron pointed out a few challenges of The Marciac Suite. "A lot of the material was new to us. The tune 'Dark Canyon' was challenging. Wynton had charts written out for four horns that needed to be played on the piano. But sometimes, things arranged for four horns don't work out on piano, so certain tricks of the trade had to be used."

In recent years, Marsalis has employed a combination of timbres that evidence a unique compositional style.

"He is just getting much better at weaving elements of different kinds of music together," Barron said. "He's always been distilling and incorporating musics and styles into his own, but now he's becoming more expert at it."