Wynton Marsalis Simplifies Matters

In all outward signs, Wynton Marsalis’s new album, “The Magic Hour,” represents a change in his career. It’s on a new label: last year, Mr. Marsalis signed with Blue Note after more than 20 years and 30 jazz records with Columbia/Sony. It also presents a new band, at least new to most listeners, who are used to the septet he has played with for more than a decade. But most strikingly, it is a statement about simplicity, a virtue that has often escaped him.

The density and vaulting ambition that have characterized Mr. Marsalis’s recent work are absent from “The Magic Hour.” It is a record of pared-down themes, rhythmic play, and open space; it almost floats with a sense of casual, mischievous intelligence. The album isn’t just a pleasant relief from grandiosity, but a strong statement on its own.

Don’t be mistaken: this new record surely doesn’t indicate an all-encompassing new direction. Mr. Marsalis is the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and a successful trumpeter and bandleader in his own right, and whenever he gets a new idea, the resources are waiting for him; no figure in jazz has ever had more opportunities. This includes the building of a $128 million complex for Jazz at Lincoln Center, opening this fall, where a great deal of his music will be performed. He has developed his career according to his interests, and they have taken him in many directions at once.

“The Magic Hour” recalls an earlier point in Mr. Marsalis’s career. In 1988, he had been famous for seven years and had just released “Live at Blues Alley,” the best example yet of his band’s athletic style. But he decided it was time for a change. Instead of just extending the current lingua franca of small-group jazz, he said that he wanted his music to reflect himself, and to connect with his ideas about society, art and history. The first result was “The Majesty of the Blues,” a complex reclamation of the genre by someone who had previously considered it simple, debased, unchallenging.

That year Mr. Marsalis also began working with Lincoln Center, developing concert programming framed around the great jazz musicians of history. And he began recording along discrete themes; nearly everything he made thereafter was a sort of concept album.

Starting from “The Majesty of the Blues,” the philosophical underpinning of his music expanded by degrees, through the oratorio “Blood on the Fields,” from 1997. It culminated in “All Rise,” a symphonic piece for jazz band and orchestra, which was first performed in 1999 and was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and Kurt Masur as a statement on the end of the millennium. Both were long works with epic themes: the first addressed slavery in America, and the second addressed the interconnectedness of music from around the world as a metaphor for integration. Both had many parts, and amid stretches of strong arrangements there were serious longueurs, patches of creaky lyric writing and a general feeling of bloat. The pieces could seem simultaneously super-purposeful and somehow diluted. And they could prompt warm thoughts of his mid-80’s music, which, though complicated and aggressive, mostly demonstrated the inner strengths and cohesion of the band itself.

“The Magic Hour” bears its composer’s touch in its meticulous investigation of rhythmic vamps, bringing out the tone color of each instrument. And the record’s almost ad hoc feel — as if it came together by fooling around from scratch at parties — suggests that, just as Mr. Marsalis reconsidered the blues 16 years ago, he is again entertaining the idea that for the best jazz groups, material is neutral and collective sound is all. In other words, what matters most is what you do around any piece of music, even more than the question of who composed it, what form it takes, what it represents as written repertory. This is a big move away from the terrifying pomp of, say, a millennial piece commissioned by Lincoln Center.

The young band heard on “The Magic Hour” — Mr. Marsalis, with Eric Lewis on piano, Carlos Henriquez on bass and Ali Jackson on drums — isn’t really new. (Nor has it permanently displaced his old septet.) These musicians have worked with Mr. Marsalis off and on since 1996, often at benefits or private parties. But unlike some of Mr. Marsalis’s star sidemen of the past — there has now been a full generation of them — Mr. Lewis and Mr. Jackson at least have spent their 20’s at large in the New York jazz scene, rather than encased in Wyntonia.

They have developed an easy, deep communication. “Free to Be” is a 32-bar tune with an almost daringly simple theme. But a long solo by Mr. Marsalis demonstrates the best of his brass effects and his relaxed narrative logic. And the pianist, Mr. Lewis, thinks in sustained, almost trancelike ideas that go past their obvious stopping points, playing parallel-hands sections and burrowing into his own invented melodies. (Mr. Lewis has come a long way in the last few years; a recent addition to the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, he has lent a kind of stealthy weirdness to its last few concerts at Alice Tully Hall, cresting into hard, percussive attacks.)

Mr. Henriquez and Mr. Jackson build strong grooves, fusing New Orleans, swing and Latin rhythms. Those grooves extend from the most basic, bouncing jams to the 13-minute final track, a kind of jump-cutting suite of contrasting styles that begins with two minutes of free, gestural playing — it could come from an Anthony Braxton album — over a fixed pulse, and later goes into chunks of habañera rhythm, four-four swing and slow, abstract ballad music for solo piano, among other things. This amusement park is neatly laid out, as is everything Mr. Marsalis has put his hand to; those who have never liked his work will probably still find it too tightly controlled. But its sense of fun is obvious, as is the players’ interconnectedness.

If there’s anything that doesn’t feel right about the album, it’s two tracks that import well-known singers. Dianne Reeves sings Mr. Marsalis’s lyrics for Duke Ellington’s “Feeling of Jazz,” literalizing a great small-gesture tune that didn’t need it. And Bobby McFerrin administers a cuteness O.D. in a throwaway called “Baby, I Love You.” They’re beside the point, and feel like concessions. Even if it doesn’t arrive packaged in a grand design, the instrumental music here has earned the honor of standing alone.

by Ben Ratliff
Source: The New York Times

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