The Magic of Wynton Marsalis

Magic was in the air as The Wynton Marsalis Quartet took the stage Sunday night, when the preeminent trumpeter in jazz music today strode confidently to that stage and began to whistle. This was just the beginning of an unexpected opener – an obscure Ornette Coleman’s composition – ‘Remnant” – a request from an audience member that was given a loving and virtuosi treatment.

The gorgeous tone and exceptional control of the featured artist shone brightly in the superb acoustics of the Raue Center, aided by the group’s observant sound technician. The trumpeter giant’s 3 1/2 octave range and classically fast and smooth fingering never overshadowed his lyrical inventiveness and exceptional command, and his lines were subtle, yet surprising, emotional and engaging. The respect for the tradition of the art of jazz -and indeed all music – was apparent in every note he played, and there was as much Haydn as Fats Navarro – all colored with a distinctive bluesy New Orleans hue.

Nor was the man alone on stage: he was ably supported by a swinging band consisting of Ali Jackson Jr. on the drums, Carlos Henriquez on acoustic bass, and Eric Lewis on piano. Henriquez in particular made the wood sing, and at times seemed to be channeling the spirit of bass great Slam Stewart in his singing along with his formidable fingerwork. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise was the playing of pianist, Lewis. Marsalis has always found stellar keyboard accompanist: Cyrus Chestnut and Marcus Roberts to name two, and in Lewis he has discovered another gem. Matching the bandleader solo for solo, the strapping piano man created compellingly intricate harmonies on the blues, while bursting forth in bombastic wave after wave of chromatic cascades, most notably on the blazing “Knozz-Moe-King” which ended the first half.
After a brief intermission, the personable bandleader entertained the crowd with some lighthearted banter, before transporting the listeners into a state of bliss with his brilliantly emotive muted horn on ‘Me and You,” which also featured Henriquez’s beautiful bowed bass and Jackson and Marsalis’ joyful handclaps. Guest bassist John Price stepped in on the following number: ‘Sophie Rose-Rosalee” – a lovely waltz written for his daughter, in which Wynton’s muted trumpet wove a golden spell over Jackson’s sensitive brushwork.

The charming “The Magic Hour” – title track of his latest release followed. A suite in four sections – each representing four aspects of jazz – the music moves from 4/4 swing to Afro Cuban rhythm, through the blues to end with a ballad. As Wynton wryly explained, the magic hour is the time between when the adults put the children to bed and when they fall asleep. During the course of this piece, his plunger playing resurrected the spirits of Louis Armstrong and King Oliver, and his smears and ghostly effects were reminiscent of Barney Bigard. Meanwhile, the band put on veritable clinic on how to properly play each of the different styles included. As an encore, the band performed a ferocious version of ‘Free to Be” – one that the perfectionist bandleader started three separate times to get the correct tempo. The musicians’ confidently impeccable technique was a joy to observe and hear as they produced solid grooves, filled with optimistic energy, syncopation with a blues feeling, and assured polyphonic interaction. The solos especially were noteworthy in their thematic development. Whereas lesser players often meander through uninteresting lapses during lengthy passages, the quartet kept the attention of the audience through powerful yet nuanced solos, which combined velocity with tone in their considerable breadth, and with no wasted notes included.

9-time Grammy Award winner, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and perhaps the most acclaimed composer, educator and musician in jazz and classical music today, the classy Marsalis left the stage with the air still vibrating with the magic of a music that followed the lucky crowd out into the beautiful spring evening and, no doubt, with them in their memories for a lifetime.

by Brad Walseth

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