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Wynton Marsalis: right man with the wrong group?

In an age when noise is power, Wynton Marsalis is sheer understatement. Elegant, precise, elliptical, he walks into a world of modern blare and racket with a sure sense that music is not only the notes that are played but the spaces in between them. The result is some of the most gently brilliant jazz to be heard anywhere these days.

As a jazzman who has also made a name in classical music, he is probably without equal -- despite his youth. Playful, intelligent, and full of astonishing variety, this Grammy-award winner can make his horn peep, mutter, shout, sing, and scold in the course of a single note -- even as he shifts from trumpet to cornet to flue-gelhorn without ever changing his instrument.

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Why, then, was his one-night stand Oct. 10 at Symphony Hall here only a qualified success?

Maybe it was the hall -- a stern old Back Bay dowager of a place, built for the formalities of a full orchestra and rather off-putting for an intimate group of piano, bass, drums, horn, and multiple microphones. Maybe it was the audience, which never welded itself into a whole. But probably it was the quartet itself. Competent, rehearsed, and attentive though they were, the three backup artists never quite came to terms with what Marsalis himself was doing.

One problem lay with the drums. Drummer Jeff (Tain) Watts simply overwhelmed the others -- not his fault, by the way, but a problem that has grown nearly to epidemic proportions as jazz tries to accommodate itself to audiences well bruised by rock. Like a large dog in a small house, Watts simply needed a good long run: When late in the show he was let loose in a solo, he was terrific. Most of the time, however, the other musicians were drowned out by the rhythm-keeper -- which, I suppose, is a telling m etaphor for our age.

Nearer to Marsalis's temperament was pianist Marcus Roberts, who had some wonderful phrases here and there. Overall, however, he seemed a bit too -- how to say it -- rectilinear and vertical, where what was wanted was more fluidity and horizontal glow.

Closest to Marsalis, perhaps, was bassist Bob Hurst -- largely because, although he proved himself no slouch of a technician in a fine, long solo, he was willing to be extremely simple. The best piece in the show, in fact, was the last: a composition titled ``Later,'' which consisted largely of Hurst's slow-walking bass behind an otherwise unaccompanied trumpet. Providing plenty of rhythm and harmony, it displayed Marsalis in all his brilliant nuance.

That, after all, is what the audience came to hear. And hear it they did, now and then -- although Marsalis, kind and deferential to his colleagues, gave them too many long solos and tolerated too much fortissimo. He hasn't quite found the balance yet. When he does -- when this virtuoso of gentle power assembles the right group and clicks the right combination into place -- there will be no stopping him: The heart of this old Back Bay dowager will absolutely melt with gladness, and all the trees of the Fenway will clap their hands.

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