How do you spot promising young artists? Speaking of poets, W.H. Auden once said it has little to do with whether they have much to say. What matters, instead, is whether they are fascinated by words.
By that standard, Wynton Marsalis, the young trumpeter who performed with his jazz quintet at Boston's Berklee Performance Center Dec. 10, is full of promise. He simply loves notes. And he has about 40 ways of attacking them - from full-bodied clarion blasts aimed straight at the audience to soft croonings with the bell of his instrument covering the microphone like a candle snuffer, and on through glissandi, squeaks, and tiny pips of sound. His trumpet does everything but talk: An instrument of astonishing flexibility, it produces both hot verve and a cool humor.
Young as he is, however, he already has something to say - and promises to have even more as he develops. Standing old orthodoxies on their heads, he's just as happy to begin a piece with a drum solo as with a clear statement of theme - and to end by walking away (literally) from the microphone in the middle of an almost inaudible phrase. Virtuoso bassist Charnett Moffett (who, with pianist Kenny Kirkland, drummer Jeff Watts, and Wynton's brother Branford Marsalis on tenor and soprano sax, made a sterling team) was as happy playing triplets against a four-beat line - and doing a stunning solo - as taking the more traditional role as rhythmic anchor.
Perhaps because Marsalis (who has worked with Herbie Hancock and Art Blakey) also plays and records with symphony orchestras, his performances concentrate - even exhaust, at times - the intelligence of his listeners. Yet the pieces he writes and selects are often wildly centrifugal. Unlike the measured, tightly rehearsed, and centripetal compositions of some of his contemporaries, his threaten to fly apart into cacophony - and would, were it not for his presiding genius. Leaning more on mind than on soul, he holds them together.
One senses here an astute critic of his medium, who with his talent as a performer and his growing flair for composition is primed to be a significant presence in the future of jazz.