He and She is about that eternally compelling and most elemental of subjects, the relationship between a man and a woman. Marsalis hasn’t merely crafted a love story, but a life story - a bittersweet rumination about the evanescence of life as well as the elusiveness of romance. Time is very much at the heart of He and She: the swift passage of time over the course of one’s life, the mood-altering shifts of time in the duration of a song.
He and She began with words, not music, though it was music that brought forth the words. Marsalis had been listening to Max Roach’s Jazz in ¾ Time, along with pieces by Duke Ellington, like “Lady Mac” from Such Sweet Thunder, work that explored waltz tempo in a jazz context. Roach’s classic album features “Valse Hot,” which, explains Marsalis is “a Sonny Rollins piece, a jazz waltz that I started to play when I was in high school.” That tune set off a spark: “I began to contemplate the shuffle rhythm, that the shuffle rhythm is the combination of a waltz feeling and a march feeling, and I thought it would be good for me to do an album of waltzes. I had written a couple before — one was for a ballet by Twyla Tharp, inspired by the Matisse painting, The Dance. I was thinking about waltzes and how in Vienna today younger people still dance the waltz, a waltz season is still a part of their social calendar. From there, I began to consider the ritual of courtship. The waltz is a courtship dance and at one time it was considered to be risqué. Now, of course, it’s genteel. Then I started to think about men and women, our relationships.”
Marsalis had ended his last Blue Note studio album, From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, with a stunning spoken word piece, a concentrated burst of righteous anger that addressed with preacher-like fervor the divisive, post-Katrina state of the nation. On He and She, Marsalis’s voice is more prominent throughout, prefacing just about every track with his words. Marsalis notes, “On He and She, it’s a man talking, but the person who delivers the universal truth of the matter is a woman.”
Before heading into the studio, the Wynton Marsalis Quintet traveled to the Iron Horse, in Northampton to perform this new material in front of an audience. On June 3 and 4, Wynton led a quartet at the Iron Horse for four packed shows Tuesday and Wednesday nights. He brought along pianist Eric Lewis, drummer Ali Jackson Jr., and bassist Carlos Enriquez, and the quartet performed a seven-tune set, followed by a single song encore.
Most of the compositions played at the first Tuesday show were so new that Wynton hadn’t named them yet, and they included a sprightly New Orleans shuffle, a playful swing largely built around a one-note melody, and even one speedy “out”. Marsalis has been coming up to the club for years to test-drive his work. The quintet subsequently cut the tracks live over a two-day period. The minimally edited result became He and She.
He and She draws its greatest power from telling a familiar story in such a compelling and richly entertaining manner, a unique variation on a theme that everyone, in some way, knows. One detects the sound of all our love stories in here. In other words, He and She is also Us.