Beginning with the percussion sounds evocative of a chain gang that open the nearly 12-minute title song, it's clear that Wynton Marsalis' From the Plantation to the Penitentiary (Blue Note **½) is going to be an album with an agenda.
It's an expertly played and sung album filled with high-speed swing, beautiful balladry, and even a sampling of Marsalis rhyming over a second-line strut. But it's one in which the message is paramount - and gets in the way of the music.
Case in point: An impeccably performed, lovely tune called "Love and Broken Hearts," featuring nuanced interplay between Marsalis' trumpet and Walter Blanding's saxophone, and a delicately expressive vocal by Jennifer Sanon.
Yet Marsalis' call for a return to romance opens with a broadside at the hip-hop generation that's a romantic buzzkill, if ever there was one: "I ain't your bitch, I ain't your ho," Sanon sings, "And public niggerin' has got to go / Oh safari seekers and thug-life coons, you modern-day minstrels with your songless tunes."
The idea of Marsalis rhyming over a beat on "Where Y'All At?" might seem ludicrous and lampoonable. But the song's Motown bass line and loose, chanted title question make it the most effective track of all.