Big Train

by Richard S. Ginell
On 1999’s Big Train, Marsalis tries on the mantle of Duke Ellington in the latter’s centennial year and finds that it suits him. A 52-minute big band suite modeled after Ellington’s long-form essays, it purports to evoke the moods, sounds and feelings of a cross-country train trip with selections named after a train’s various cars. Like an Ellington suite, the sections run together; after the striking “All Aboard,” you’re in Ellington country, right down to the plunger mute wah-wah riffs. “Union Pacific” paraphrases “Rockin’ in Rhythm”; the ballad “Sleeper Car” evokes Johnny Hodges and Tricky Sam Nanton
quite explicitly. Inevitably, there’s a track called “Night Train”; thankfully, its bossa nova flavor has nothing to do with Duke’s piece. Marsalis has mastered the Ellington idiom, writing and organizing the piece skillfully and getting the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra to play with precision and emotion. Yet the one thing that Ellington (and Billy Strayhorn) could do and Marsalis has yet to demonstrate is the ability to come up with a big, memorable tune; there’s craft, emotion, and swing, but little else to take home with you. If you didn’t know that this work was about trains, you might not guess it; you can’t really feel the rocking, chugging, streamlined motion of the rails in this work. There is fine soloing all around in the hard bop tradition from Wessell Anderson, Victor Goines, Wycliffe Gordon, Ted Nash and Walter Blanding, Jr., though the liner fails to note which of the multiple tenor, alto, trombone players are soloing on which tracks. But overall, this is one of Marsalis’ better extended form essays.