Marsalis returns to ensemble jazz on 'The Magic Hour'

His great New Orleans heritage is in the music

Music: in concert, CDs

March 04, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

The day has ended; the lights are low. And the house is clean, still and quiet. Tucked in, the kids drift on to Dreamsville as you and your significant other finally get a moment alone.

This is the time Wynton Marsalis calls "the magic hour," and it's the title of his debut for the storied Blue Note label.

"The feeling is fun," says the classical-jazz trumpeter, phoning from his New York office. "I wanted the record to be relaxed. It's about bringing different generations together. It celebrates everybody being together."

Indeed, The Magic Hour, which drops in stores Tuesday, feels like a private after-hours party -- musicians gathered in the living room, swingin', jammin', havin' a good time. As expected from Marsalis, the eight-piece set is smart and lyrical, rooted firmly in traditional styles: the blues, modal jazz and New Orleans swing.

Vibrant shades -- Afro-Cuban rhythms, gospel-inflected belting from the incomparable Dianne Reeves -- invigorate the buoyant, accessible album. Featuring Eric Lewis on piano, Carlos Henriquez on bass and Ali Jackson on drums, The Magic Hour, produced by younger brother Delfeayo, is Marsalis' first jazz studio ensemble record since 1999's refined The Marciac Suite. His last release, the ambitious but daunting All Rise, was an extended composition featuring the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

"All Rise was such a huge piece involving over 200 people," Marsalis says. "I wanted to produce my next recording with a smaller group. I wanted to restate my basic love of jazz music in a quartet format."

In his 24-year recording career, Marsalis -- the second-oldest in the first family of jazz that includes his piano-playing pops Ellis and saxophone-blowing brother Branford -- has long established himself as one of the genre's giants. In some circles, the musician-composer is thought of as a staunch preserver of jazz. But bottling the music, so to speak, is something Marsalis has never tried to do.

"I don't so much as preserve jazz as play it," says the New Orleans native, 43. "It's important that you can produce something that's honest and full of good information. I play all styles of music, because it's all alive. I play with all types of musicians of different ages because everybody has something to say."

In his role as artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, a position Marsalis has maintained since 1992, the composer-arranger has introduced thousands to the infinite possibilities of jazz. In between yearly performances that take him all over the world, Marsalis exposes young folks to the art of improvisation through hands-on workshops. The artist is passionate about sharing jazz, passing on the legacy.

He says, "Jazz is important because it addresses the highest principles of America, like democracy and communicating with each other. ... It's flexible like the Constitution. It can be interpreted so many different ways but still hold its shape and its meanings. It helps you with your emotional development because it's a mature music. As long as that is important, jazz will be important."

Marsalis' accomplishments -- many reached before he turned 30 -- solidify his legend. While at Columbia Records for 20 years, he put out 33 jazz and 11 classical albums and took home nine Grammys. In 1997, he became the first jazz artist to win the Pulitzer Prize in music. Commissioned by Jazz at Lincoln Center, Blood on the Fields, an expansive 27-part suite, told the story of two Africans brought to America and sold as slaves. The fame, the accolades, the praise (some of it heaped on a little too thick at the beginning of his career) never obscured Marsalis' main goal: to make good, expansive music.

"Being from New Orleans, we had music going on all the time," he says. "It's the greatest musical place in the country. The hymns and marches I heard growing up, the pop tunes, the funk tunes -- everything is in the music I do today."

On The Magic Hour, Marsalis subtly reflects those influences. "Feeling of Jazz," featuring Dianne Reeves, pays homage to the genre with a lowdown blues bottom and rousing, expressive lines from Marsalis. "Big Fat Hen" is a fun, danceable strutting number. And "Sophie Rose-Rosalee" tempers the mood with a tender waltz, featuring a sparkling understated solo by Eric Lewis.

"Making the record was a fun experience," Marsalis says. "I have a lot of respect for the musicians playing on this album. It wasn't like we were playing on a project. This is our life. Music is what we do. We were playing like we do at my house -- when we're trading ideas and relaxing."

When everything seems to unfold beautifully in the magic hour.

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