Every artist knows the pressure to "shut up and sing." But with the injustices of our nation made evident in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and in the midst of a disastrous war waged on false pretenses, musician Wynton Marsalis has joined the chorus of artists crying "wake up" to America. His latest album, From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, is a response to congregants who have called out from the pew, "Make it plain, preacher."
Marsalis' efforts to "make it plain" begin with the fact that, unlike most of his previously published compositions, these songs have words, and lots of them—fiery words, many of them more likely to be heard on the street than in a church. But this isn't the foul-mouthed rhetoric of commercial hip-hop. It's a combination of righteous anger, mournful lament, and romantic invitation evoking the language of biblical prophets and psalmists who availed themselves of the complete scope of human emotions. It's an honesty that the black church required for survival and a prophetic and pastoral power that the rest of American churches have yet to grasp. Marsalis' lyrics in "Love and Broken Hearts" call to us, "Oh how did we lose our song? When did we forget our dance?"
Marsalis also "makes it plain" with more accessible music in the album's seven compositions. The opening smack of the tambourine and the ensuing groove of the title track conjure the calloused hands and hard labors of generations of America's African descendants. Joining the cries of Marsalis' trumpet and Walter Blanding's soprano saxophone is the voice of vocalist Jennifer Sanon, her unwavering, sustained syllables wedging between her counterparts almost like an alto sax.