Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

July/August 2013: Jon Gordon

Wynton Marsalis (b. 1961): The Magic Hour

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Wynton Marsalis is arguably the most recognized jazz artist in the world. As a messenger of peace for the United Nations, he’s become a jazz statesman, and as the artistic director of New York’s stellar Jazz at Lincoln Center initiative, Marsalis has helped to lift jazz to new heights with his innovative programming. He has won nine Grammy Awards and in 1997 received the Pulitzer Prize for his oratorio Blood on the Fields.

Marsalis grew up in New Orleans and is the son of the acclaimed pianist Ellis Marsalis, one of the most respected jazz educators in the world. After moving to New York City in 1978, he played with drummer Art Blakey’s combo. Blakey had an eye for talent, and his various bands were musical boot camps for many of the top players of the future. In 1981, at the age of nineteen, Marsalis released his self-titled debut album for Columbia. It helped to launch the “young lion’s” movement in jazz and created a signing frenzy, as many major labels wooed youthful players to sign to their rosters. Two decades later, only a few of those players are remembered. Marsalis is the most acclaimed and, as of this writing, has sold seven million records around the world, recording thirty-three jazz and eleven classical albums. His dominance of jazz today, and his preference for pre-1965 jazz, has led to revived interest in jazz but also to the criticism that he has put avant-garde and fusion jazz into deep shade in North America.

The Magic Hour [Blue Note #91717] is the most exciting album of Marsalis’s career and fully demonstrates what all the fuss has been about. It is fitting that the disc is his first for the Blue Note label, which has been the home of many great trumpet players, such as Kenny Dorham, Freddie Hubbard, and Donald Byrd. He’s accompanied by a remarkable acoustic quartet featuring pianist Eric Lewis, bassist Carlos Henriquez, and drummer Ali Jackson. Wynton first met Lewis and Jackson when they were just twelve and Henriquez when he was fourteen and has seen them developing into bright, innovative players.

The album casts a captivating spell. Marsalis’s trumpet playing is to the point and always interesting. The music is stripped down and uncluttered, leaving the quartet lots of room for their improvisations. Also featured on the album are two special guests, singers Dianne Reeves and Bobby McFerrin. Reeves is featured on “Feeling of Jazz,” a sweeping, slow-tempo blues song that culminates in a rousing scat-trumpet call and response. “Baby, I Love” is a bouncy, playful number featuring McFerrin on vocals. It has the heart and soul of a song that might have been recorded decades ago by Louis Armstrong. The playful “Young and Me” is a soft-shoe song with handclaps and a great two-beat groove. It is the album’s standout track. The Magic Hour is an exquisite CD from a wonderful, inspired musician.

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