Although he never recorded a note, Buddy Bolden remains a towering figure in jazz. An influence on everyone from Louis Armstrong to Jelly Roll Morton, he helped define what we now recognize as jazz from blues, ragtime, and other styles. He’s also the subject of a new movie, Bolden, which features an original soundtrack by Wynton Marsalis.
At this point in his career, Marsalis is growing into an elder statesman role. It’s likely that to a younger generation, he’s more known for his work with Jazz at Lincoln Center than for Black Codes from the Underground. But as the soundtrack to Bolden shows, he’s still a formidable talent on the cornet, even if It feels like he could pull these numbers off in his sleep.
A mix of originals and standards, Bolden opens with “Come On Children,” where Marsalis opens with what sounds like a reveille, but quickly eases into a swinging groove, with Michael White and Victor Goines playing entertaining and twisting clarinet lines. It’s classic Dixieland jazz.
And indeed, these grooves are throughout the album. “Gone My Way” has a swinging march kind of feeling – fitting for a film set in turn of the century New Orleans. Meanewhile, “Shake it High, Shake it Low,” has a more bawdy feel: the drums propel the song forward, with cymbal crashes emphasizing the rhythm and setting a more dance-hall feeling. And on “Basin Street Blues,” Marsalis returns to the trumpet, getting a fuller sound, and Dan Nimmer’s piano helps give it a blusier, more rootsy feeling.
However, the vocal numbers are also interesting. They’re a mostly of Louis Armstrong-style scatting and hoarse singing style, but on a couple of numbers Catherine Russell takes the lead. On “Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor,” she’s paired with a cello and sings with urgency; when Marsalis joins in, he’s responding to her vocals with muted lines of his own.
However, the bulk of the soundtrack’s vocals come from Reno Wilson, who plays Louis Armstrong in the film. On songs like “You Rascal You,” his singing – not to mention the musical backing – bring to mind Armstrong’s vaudeville influences. It’s not hard to picture him singing in the spotlight, trumpet in hand. Throughout the standards included here – ‘Russian Lullaby” and “Stardust,” for example – the vibe’s the same.
What Bolden does best when taken as a whole is how it goes deep into the roots of jazz, and goes from early points like “Didn’t He Ramble” up through songs like “Muskrat Ramble,” which Armstrong and his Hot Fives band would use to create the musical language we now consider jazz. Songs included here like “Muskrat Ramble” and “Basin Street Blues,” are now considered standards, but given the film’s setting, would’ve been considered new compositions. Musically, these performances don’t add anything new to the songs, but they help establish a context for the music here. You can hear it growing, changing into something new.
As a soundtrack, it’s a little hard to judge without seeing the movie. But as an album, and taken in the context of Marsalis’ career as a musician and educator, it’s an entertaining listen and an interesting look at how musicians like Armstrong and Bolden helped fashion jazz out of a variety of styles and sounds.
While Marsalis’ playing on Bolden isn’t among his strongest, he comes across as a driving force in the soundtrack’s style and sound, and in the way it covers a variety of styles and influences and forms them into a whole. All in all, it’s a worthwhile listen.